Nicklas Grossman, a member of the three-player class of defensemen that impressed us so much back in that magical 2007-08 season, has been viewed as the years progressed as the most solid of the three and the one with the most potential in the future for the Dallas Stars.
A big, defensively strong blueliner, Grossman has been the most consistent player out himself, Mark Fistric and the departed Matt Niskanen -- and some felt he could be a major part of what the Stars are building for the future.
As with Niskanen, the development curve of Fistric and Grossman has flattened out a bit as Grossman has gone from a defenseman with hopeful upside as a big body in front of the net to a player with limited offensive ability who struggles at times defensively. A player the fans have grown to love, it's been puzzling to see the promising player regress in some ways this season, leading to a question that has begun to linger about his future with this organization.
Grossman is one of many free agents the Stars will have to make a decision on this summer. Along with Alex Goligoski, Mark Fistric, Philip Larsen and Sheldon Souray, the Stars are going to have to determine who on this team has a future with the franchise, especially considering the defensive talent the Stars are cultivating in the system and who will be moving up to the AHL next season.
There are many unknowns associated with this decision, especially when you consider that we truly have no knowledge of what this organization thinks about the long-term future of players like Brenden Dillon, Jordie Benn and even more importantly Philip Larsen.
Dillon is under team control for another two years after this season, yet the Stars will have to make decisions about players like Benn -- who has essentially come from nowhere -- along with their NHL players in Grossman, Souray, Larsen and Fistric.
The catch here is that Grossman, along with Souray, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Stars are likely facing some lengthy contract talks with Goligoski, who undoubtedly will be a key part of the future of the team. Souray will be 36 next season and while he's enjoyed a good comeback year there's no guarantee he returns to Dallas next season.
The Stars will then likely face a decision in regards to Fistric and Grossman, not only which player has the most potential for the future but which player is more valuable in the long run. Fistric will be a restricted free agent so the option of losing him to free agency doesn't exist; Grossman, however, will hit the open market on July 1st if he doesn't sign an extension with Dallas in the meantime.
The key to this decision is the trade deadline and whether the Stars can reach a deal with Grossman before the end of February. If no deal exists, and the Stars face the chance of losing Grossman to free agency this summer, could the defenseman then become part of a trade the Stars use to help bolster a roster in need of scoring depth at the forward position?
Right now, while it's tough to see Grossman struggle (last night's game against Los Angeles was easily his worst of the season ) there's little doubt that Grossman is a more valuable defenseman than Mark Fistric, especially in a trade. He's also more valuable to the Stars, who have need to create balance on defense with solid, stay-at-home blueliners -- something that Grossman has excelled at until this season.
While Grossman's struggles this year certainly worry Stars fans, he's still been the most consistent penalty killer for the Stars this season and a big part of why that unit has improved as the season progressed. While there were some struggles last night against Los Angeles, over the course of the season Grossman has at least been reliable on the penalty kill, something that is incredibly valuable for a team struggling with special teams.
What is frustrating is seeing Grossman held back from really taking that next step because of his lack of physicality. For such a big defenseman (6-4, 230), the gentle giant rarely lays the big hit or crushes players around the net. Last night against the Kings, Grossman had the chance to bury a player along the boards and instead chose to merely rub him off the puck -- which then led to a scoring chance for LA.
So where does Grossman fit in the future plans for this team? Alone, it's doubtful that he would fetch much in a trade if needed but he would certainly be a major piece as a solid 3/4 defenseman. The Stars must decide if Grossman's future is worth the contract he's likely seeking after this season, and whether his presence would help or hurt the future at that position with so many other defensemen coming up through the system in the near future.
Many unknowns -- notably how the Stars view the value of players like Fistric, Larsen, Dillon, etc -- but there's no doubt that until the trade deadline passes or Grossman signs an extension, questions about his future with this franchise will linger.