The month of June was an interesting time for Dallas Stars fans. The news was broken that while the sale of the team is progressing (albeit slowly), Brad Richards would not be returning to the team next season. In fact, the Dallas Stars would not even be making an offer, knowing it was useless, and both Richards and the team parted ways weeks before the start of free agency.
For some, the expected yet frustrating news signaled that it was time to rebuild. Without Brad Richards, the Stars would have no chance to compete in the Western Conference -- let alone the Pacific Division -- and fighting to maintain a facade of playing for the postseason would be pointless.
Unfortunately, this just wasn't an option for Joe Nieuwendyk and the Stars. Without an owner, without any financial ability to market this team as it should be done, the fanbase could not be asked to suffer through a firesale and complete rebuild at the same time. With teams being forced to spend outrageous amounts of money, the Dallas Stars are going to struggle to keep up with revenue staying like it has been; turning the team upside down at this point is just not an option, no matter how good it may be in the long term.
What Joe Nieuwendyk has accomplished in the past two weeks, however, is incredible. Through a very strong draft and with exceptionally smart decisions in free agency, he's set this franchise up with a bright future full of promising prospects with great potential while giving this current team a chance to at least remain competitive in the increasingly powerful Western Conference.
In fact, not only have the Stars maintained the same level of potential as last season (just barely missing the playoffs), the roster has actually improved and despite all of the talk about the future there should be no reason not to be excited about this year as well.
No doubt, losing a great player like Brad Richards is going to hurt in many ways. In others, his departure allowed the Stars to focus on a different direction for this team and continue to think about the future. The salary that would have gone to Richards instead was used on three very capable and talented free agents who, when combined, actually makes this a better team on paper than if it was just Brad Richards.
Consider for a moment that Richards did decide to stay with the Stars, to take a bit of a discount and sign for 7 years, $49 million. Working with the current budget, that leaves just $4 to $5 million to improve the team around him - while losing several free agents in the process. Would a combination of Fiddler and Souray helped the team next season? Of course, but with Richards staying the goal would have been to win now and to win big.
Without Richards, Joe Nieuwendyk took the Stars in a different direction.
He wants this to be a good team. He wants the Dallas Stars to win and he needs the Stars to fill the seats at the American Airlines Center. No matter how bright the future might be, the Dallas Stars desperately need to start winning fans back and filling the arena once more - without having to give tickets away.
Brad Richards departing is going to create some animosity and discontent in the fanbase. Yet another superstar is leaving this team, creating an issue among the general fanbase that is always drawn to a superstar over the "team".
To combat this backlash from the fans, Nieuwendyk has focused on winning now while still keeping an eye on the future. Even without Brad Richards, it appears as though he's actually succeeded in improving this team for the 2011-12 season.
Let's look at last year's roster, compared to this year's proposed lines:
2010-11 (using roster from start of last season)
Neal - Richards - Eriksson
Morrow - Ribeiro - Burish
Ott - Wandell - Benn
Barch - Petersen - Sutherby
Segal - Brunnstrom
Robidas - Grossman
Skrastins - Daley
Woywitka - Niskanen
Coach: Marc Crawford
Proposed combinations, 2011-12 season:
Morrow - Ribeiro - Ryder
Ott - Benn - Eriksson
Fiddler - Wandell - Burish
Dowell - Petersen - Dvorak
Barch - Vincour (?)
Robidas - Goligoski
Souray - Grossman
Pardy - Daley
Coach: Glen Gulutzan
Now, this is comparing rosters from the start of last season to this season. Of course, steps were taken during the course of last year to improve the team but only one move will have any lasting effect: the trade for Alex Goligoski. It's also important to note that nearly all of the changes I'm extolling have to do with this upcoming season alone. After 2011-12, once again things are going to get interesting.
What is most striking to me is how much deeper the Stars have suddenly become. While the divide between the top two lines and the rest of the roster is not as great without Richards, the third and fourth lines should be able to become much more than just "hard to play against" and will help to replace the offensive production lost by Richards.
Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak -- even at Dvorak's age -- will have a much more significant impact on games than Brandon Segal or Brian Sutherby. Fiddler can play up and down this roster and help on the top lines if injury occurs, while providing incredible experience and leadership on the penalty kill. Ryder will give Mike Ribeiro the right-handed finisher he's lacked since Jere Lehtinen.
Even with the loss of Brad Richards, the difference in the rosters is a bit staggering. While there likely won't be a true "top line" as we've seen Ribeiro flourishes more as a #2 center than a #1, and the Stars will need Jamie Benn to become the monster we all know he can be, overall from top to bottom the Stars are a better team.
Last year, the Stars won 42 games, earned 95 points and missed the postseason by a game. The Stars lost in overtime or the shootout eleven times; if the Stars could have won just half of those then we'd be having a much different conversation today.
The roster for this season is going to be built to not give up those sorts of losses, to not allow back breaking goals just minutes or seconds after the Stars have scored. To not allow game-tying goals in the final minute of a game against a division rival.
More importantly these Dallas Stars will be focused and will have a strong, charismatic coach leading the way. For two years we waited and waited to see when Marc Crawford would actually step up and be a head coach for this team. We talked endlessly about poor preparation and horrible starts, with the Stars typically having to work a miracle to win games.
There are many unknowns about Gulutzan and nearly every player signed for the Stars has some as well. Ryder and Souray are out to prove everyone else wrong, and hope to do so while playing for the Stars. Glen Gulutzan is making a big leap from the ECHL to the NHL in just three years, yet he has a track record as a coach that can get the most out of the players as at his disposal.
The Dallas Stars lost Brad Richards to free agency, receiving nothing in return. It was a situation that could have been made worse with knee jerk reactions by the front office or the Stars fighting to overpay free agents just to appease the nearsightedness of the general fanbase.
Instead, the Stars worked out the best plan possible. Nieuwendyk has set up this team to be truly special in a very short few years, yet has managed to make this current team better than last season.
I don't know how you can ask for more.