We sit just under 24 hours from the start of the 2012 NHL Free Agency period and Dallas Stars fans still have no idea of what to expect from General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk and owner Tom Gaglardi. The Stars have already kicked off what seems to be a big shift in culture in Dallas, trading Mike Ribeiro and deciding not to re-sign Sheldon Souray, Adam Burish and a number of other pending free agents -- at least for the time being.
With the trade of Ribeiro, the Dallas Stars are suddenly thinner than ever before at center in the NHL -- although the acquisition of Cody Eakin and Radek Faksa at least bring some hope for the future at the position. Nevertheless, the Stars seem to be in need of a center to at least take over second-line duties and take pressure off of Jamie Benn. According to Mike Heika, however, the Stars don't appear to be in a rush to head into free agency focused on acquiring a center no matter what the cost might be.
"Honestly, no," Nieuwendyk said of the question that's burning in the brains of most Stars fans. "If we go into next season with the centers we have in our organization, I'm fine with that. Is it an area where we would like to find the right fit? Definitely. But ‘have' to have one? No, I don't think so."
The weak crop of free agent centers is certainly a bit reason for Nieuwendyk's cautious approach, although it's also possible this is a case of the Stars GM choosing not to divulge plans via the media. The Stars traded Ribeiro with a very specific plan in place to help replace his production -- at least one would hope so -- and while Eakin and Faksa certainly represent promise for the future. Yet you seriously wonder just how enthused the Stars would be heading into next season with only Jamie Benn, Steve Ott, Vernon Fiddler, Ryan Garbutt and Tom Wandell as experienced NHL centers in the organization.
So the big question on everyone's mind is just how aggressive the Stars need to be in free agency, not only for a center but the other positions of need as well.
"We just have to be smart and get the right kind of player to fit our team," Nieuwendyk said. "That could be one of the ‘big fish,' as you say, or it could just be a series of signings that make us stronger as a team. We've done our homework and we're prepared to make the best of free agency, but it's only one part of the process."
The Dallas Stars are going to be active tomorrow, this is a given. The Stars haven't talked about being financially flexible and able just to idly sit by in free agency at least not take steps forward to improve. The Stars aren't in need only for top pairing defensemen and top-six forwards, either. With the Stars choosing not to extend offers to players like Jake Dowell, Toby Petersen, Sheldon Souray and Adam Burish, it's obvious that the team is also looking for change in the bottom six as well, even if they could choose to bring back a few of the UFA's once the free agency dust settles.
The big debate, of course, is just how aggressive the Dallas Stars can afford to be and a lot of that depends on just where Nieuwendyk and Gaglardi believe this team to be developmentally. It's obvious with the Ribeiro trade that the Stars are looking for changes after the past four years of frustration, but many believe that the Stars are far from just one or two players away from true contention -- instead the Stars are likely 2-3 years away as most of the young talent is still developing.
The Stars outwardly state they'd be content with the centers currently in the organization, with many fans also seemingly willing to see Radek Faksa given a chance at the NHL this season as an additional option at center. Yet this is also a team that has missed the postseason four straight years in a row and stand the chance at losing even more fans, despite the surge the team found at home after the sale to Gaglardi was complete. This is a team that is desperate to get back to the postseason, to create some buzz about the team, and to at least attempt to become more competitive in the short term while also maintaining the building plan for the future.
As such, the Stars first turn to free agency. Unfortunately, a weak free agent class that will see a number of players get grossly overpaid (although this seems to be true every year) apparently has weakened the Stars master plans for "rebuilding" under new owner Tom Gaglardi. What is encouraging, however, is that the Stars acknowledge this shortcoming and seem prepared to be patient and not enter free agency with guns blazing -- looking to spend money just to prove that something was attempted at being accomplished.
What we could see is the Stars take another stab at free agency similar to what we witnessed last year; with several short-term contracts handed out to second-tier free agents in an effort to maintain competitiveness while also remaining flexible for the future. This "stop-gap" options could also be highlighted by one or two long-term contracts, although the Stars have appeared to be cautious in handing out such contracts before a player has shown their worth in a Stars jersey.
There's also the prospect factor to consider, with the Stars having the flexibility to play more prospects and young players than ever before. Scott Glennie, Brenden Dillon, Alex Chiasson, Reilly Smith, Austin Smith, Matt Frase and Radek Faksa could also receive serious consideration for the NHL straight out of training camp next year and could be the infusion of youth at the NHL level that Stars fans have been waiting a very long time for.
For the Stars to avoid a complete Edmonton Oilers situation, however, and take advantage of the prime years of Loui Eriksson and others, new talent is needed in this organization. Whether the Stars overpay in free agency to achieve this or look once more to the trade market, this team needs new players to step on the ice and continue to help improve the roster.
Just how aggressive do the Stars need to be? It's tough to say, exactly, and we likely won't begin to know just how effective the plan was until training camp starts in September. The Stars are prepared to be a part of the negotiations for most free agents on the market, but it's good to see that the Stars aren't so focused on filling one particular position that a drastic mistake is made that mortgages the long-term health of this franchise.
The Dallas Stars won't be rebuilt in just one day in July, but the process starts now.