The Dallas Stars are just two days away from a very important time for the organization, as the rebuilding* plan under new owner Tom Gaglardi continues when NHL Free Agency kicks off at 11 a.m. local in Dallas. The Stars have already begun with what could be sweeping changes across the roster, with Mike Ribeiro being traded to the Washington Capitals and the team apparently prepared to give young players a shot this upcoming season.
*I'm not convinced this is a full "rebuild" as some think, but it's certainly a change in approach and direction. Which is good.
While the Stars are attempting to get more talented and younger on the roster, there's no doubt that the team desperately needs an infusion of proven talent and production -- especially on the top two lines. The trade of Ribeiro was a long-term decision but the Stars are also looking to improve not just for the future but for next season as well, and free agency is a big part of that.
The Stars have stated that they are going to be competitive with any NHL team when free agency begins on Sunday, another sign that Gaglardi is willing to spend whatever it takes to make this team successful -- as long as that spending is done smartly. While the weak crop of free agents this year is a bit alarming and a point of contention with many fans, another debate has started about the chances of the Stars even having a chance at the top free agents that do exist.
The argument is that the Dallas Stars, who have missed the postseason in four straight seasons and who don't play in the media-frenzied Northeast, are not an ideal destination for potential free agents. That even if the Dallas Stars were willing and able to give players like Ryan Suter and Zach Parise the contract they desired, the Stars would be far from the first choice of the player.
I don't buy it.
The argument has been made several times over the past few months here on Defending Big D by readers and it's something I've seen on Twitter and Facebook (shudder) as well. That Dallas, a location in the heart of the midwest and far from the media-driven locations in Canada and the Northeast, would be far from an ideal destination for the premier free agents in the NHL and that Dallas would be stuck with the second and third-tier players this season. That there are only a handful of "premiere" free agents as it is makes this a particularly discouraging argument to make.
There's also the notion that most free agents are looking for the ideal situation, that they can step into a winning situation and immediately be able to help a team contend for the Stanley Cup. The Dallas Stars, while certainly making moves to improve, are far from being in the same conversation as the teams expected to contend next season -- another reason some feel that Dallas will be looked over come Sunday when the best players on the market look for new homes.
Forget the intangibles of the situation that make Dallas an decent destination for anyone -- no state income taxes, a booming metropolis perfectly suited for the wealthy, lovely "scenery", inexpensive homes -- let's focus on the hockey aspects of why Dallas is more of an ideal situation for free agents that most are giving the Stars credit for.
The thought that free agents only want to head to a contender is a flawed one. While someone like Ryan Suter may be looking to only go to a team where he knows he'll contend for the Stanley Cup in the next year or so, not every free agent on the market is able to cherry pick such a situation -- and there's no guarantee that such a situation even exists.
There's also no guarantee that teams can "buy" their way to the Cup, and the most successful teams are the ones that can pair good drafting, smart trades and a strong organizational system with shrewd free agent signings. The Buffalo Sabres attempted to build a team in one year last season and failed miserably, while the Florida Panthers also attempted something similar and saw a bit more success. If nothing else these two situations proved that any team can attract free agents if paid enough and that even if that team is willing to pay -- success is never guaranteed.
There are also only two or three teams right now that have the power to land a free agent just by showing interest: Detroit, New York and Pittsburgh. Perhaps Vancouver. Not every free agent is going to be targeted by these teams and not every top free agent fits the needs of these teams as it is.
So where does a team like Dallas stand, a team that has missed the postseason for the past four years? How can they compete in the market with teams not just like Detroit and Vancouver, but other teams like Nashville that are more advanced in their quest to compete for the Cup?
Free agents in hockey, and in any sport, aren't just looking for the team that offers the fastest route to the Stanley Cup. They want a better situation for themselves personally, a pay raise, more ice time or a bigger role than they one they enjoyed with their previous team. They are also looking for teams that are at the very least showing a willingness and ability to improve and be committed to success. The Dallas Stars offer of these opportunities, and in some cases could be the perfect destination for players looking for a very specific situation.
Michael Ryder is a good example of this; a player that recently won the Stanley Cup but who wanted an expanded role with a new team. The Dallas Stars didn't have to overpay to get him and he went on to become the leading goal-scorer for the Stars this past season. While Ryder was certainly not the top free agent on the market last summer, it was interesting to see the Stars -- a team without an owner at the time -- able to land him.
Now the situation is much different. The Stars, despite a low payroll and limited talent last season, came close to the postseason yet again. It's not as if the Stars have been a team that has been rock-bottom in the NHL the past four years -- this has been a team that has come close but fell short. The right combination of free agents and young players and the Stars could certainly be right back in the postseason mix.
The fact that there's an owner in Dallas is also something that should not be overlooked. Gaglardi is building a winning-mentality in Dallas right now and is willing to spend to make that happen; which free agent wouldn't want to come to such a situation?
The Stars are not a team devoid of talent. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, voted on by the rest of the players in the NHL, are two of the most underrated players in the league. Kari Lehtonen is close to a top-5 goaltender and the Stars have a number of young prospects on the way.
This is a team on the rise, not a team looking to fix a sinking ship by overspending in free agency. Most players would be ecstatic to come to such a situation, to be counted upon to be an important part of a building process that could have the Stars in contention in just a few short years.
While the chances of landing Parise and Suter have always been slim, this isn't a case where the Dallas Stars have little to no chance of signing any of the other top targets on Sunday. Instead, this could be a situation where players see something special being built and want to be a big part of that process.
The big contract likely won't hurt either.