2012 NHL Free Agency: Patience Needed As Dallas Stars Continue Difficult Rebuilding Mission

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Joe Nieuwendyk takes part in a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There is one thing that is abundantly clear as the dust settled on the first day of the 2012 "free agency frenzy" -- there are a number of Dallas Stars fans that are incredibly frustrated at the progress of this organization. With Tom Gaglardi now in control of the franchise and apparently willing to spend and add talent to this team, it was easy to see just how disappointed fans were that the biggest news so far in free agency is the signing of 40-year old Ray Whitney and the departure of fan favorites Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray.

We discussed this at length leading up to the start of free agency, how this was an exciting time for Stars fans as we finally get to see the team approach the open market with a seemingly open checkbook -- when so many free agency periods have passed by the last few years without much forward progress for the organization. Yet the Stars were a few years too late, victims of one of the weakest crops of free agents we've seen in a very long time and a process slowed league-wide because of impending CBA negotiations.

It's easy to understand where the frustration comes from and after four years of missing the postseason, fans are demanding to see tangible progress and improvement by the Dallas Stars. While those able to take a very detailed look at the ramifications of the progress so far this summer are encouraged, the level of consternation that we're seeing surrounding this team is certainly at an all-time high -- it's nearly impossible to say to the casual fan that trading Mike Ribiero and adding Ray Whitney constitutes forward progress. And yet that is exactly what we are attempting to do.

Yet the Dallas Stars are victims of circumstance if nothing else on this day, only the second day of free agency, despite actually being one of the more aggressive teams on Sunday. Fans woke up this morning unhappy and disgruntled at the thought of their team not making as much progress and improvement as everyone had hoped.

As the torches are lit and the pitchforks sharpened, it's important to remember a few very important things about this time of year -- and specifically about this team's situation. First, the Dallas Stars cannot force any player to come to Dallas and secondly, that this is just the first day in a long summer of player movement -- one day does not define the only course of action this franchise will take moving forward.

It's obvious what most of the frustrated fans were wanting the Dallas Stars to accomplish: something, anything, but do something. Yet fans are left with what initially feels like backwards progress and sideways progress at-best; this is also the result of being squarely focused on short-term improvement and progress, something that is understandable given the recent failures at making the postseason.

One thing to to remember in all of this is that the Dallas Stars are most certainly deep into a rebuild, one that started a few years too late as the team attempting to maintain competitiveness around a core of players that once made it to the Western Conference Finals. With a lack of ownership and support hindering actual improvement to that group of players, the Stars tried to maintain the status quo and while they remained competitive -- came just short of the postseason too many times for Stars fans to handle.

It's clear that the Stars are attempting to exact a culture change in Dallas, a shift away from that core group of players that has wilted when the pressure was highest late in the season. The Stars are also obviously focused on a "youth movement", a focus on the young players in this system and their development and doing their best not to handcuff themselves two and three years down the line when the young core is fully developed.

This sort of approach is obviously immensely frustrating in the short term, as players like Mike Ribeiro are traded for high draft picks and a promising young prospect, but not for the sort of immediate talent infusion that so many were dreaming of this summer for the Dallas Stars. We all wanted it, a summer when the Stars were able to add to that young core of players with someone like Jason Garrison -- a player that improves the team in the short term but is also a vital part of the future as well.

The lack of true "marquee" signings yesterday should come as no surprise, for two very specific reasons: First, those types of players just don't exist this season outside of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise and secondly, because the Dallas Stars are just not the sort of destination that is desirable for the top free agents right now. We discussed this last week, the notion that the Stars are not a desired destination for players and it is now obvious that I was off base a bit in my analysis.

While fans were upset to see players like P.A. Parenteau and Jason Garrison head for other teams, the thought that the Stars were not interested in these players is a flawed one. With the Stars only signing Whitney and Aaron Rome, there is a pervasive thought that this was the full extent of the Stars offseason plan: sign a 40-year old and bottom pairing depth defenseman.

In reality, the Stars did attempt to go for that big splash. They were players for Zach Parise, making a very significant offer but eventually told there was no interest. They made a play for Jason Garrison, a player who eventually turned down more lucrative contracts to head where everyone figured he would end up anyway: Vancouver. The notion that Joe Nieuwendyk never attempting to significantly improve this team is one that is impossible to prove to those that don't want to believe, but it's clear that the Stars themselves were frustrated with not succeeding at what they initially set out to accomplish.

For fans wanting that big splash in free agency, or to see this team drastically improved over the course of just one day, the Stars have stated all along that they do not want to follow in the footsteps of a team like the Buffalo Sabres. Joe Nieuwendyk made it clear that the Stars are not looking at building this team through free agency, which they see as just one part of a very long process.

"It certainly takes more than free agency," said General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. "We all know you can't just buy and build your team in free agency. You add parts and we're trying to add parts that can help us."

Nieuwendyk would continue, revealing what is now becoming a much clearer plan that the Stars are attempting to follow: focus on the youth and not hinder the progress of those players.

"You can see what we're doing," Nieuwendyk would say. "Three years on Rome but two years on Whitney trying to bridge that gap until hopefully we get some of those kids incorporated and they turn into players, and score and be productive players like some of the other guys we've had here. I think it's important that we have a game plan to work these kids in. It's just that simple. They'll tell us if they're ready, but we're going to give some of these kids every opportunity to succeed."

The other important factor to remember here, on the first morning after the start of free agency, is that the process is far from over. There are a number of free agents still on the market and while it doesn't seem there was a lot of interest in players like Olli Jokinen and Alex Semin yesterday, the Stars made it known that they are certainly far from finished when it comes to adding and manipulating this roster.

"I wouldn't say we're finished yet," said Nieuwendyk when asked if the team was done. "We'll continue to take a look in the coming days. Three's a lot of teams that are saying the same thing, that there's a long summer ahead...possibly bleeding into September."

There are indications that the Stars are going to continue the process of molding this roster through trades, and likely with several significant trades that continue to drastically change what this roster will look like moving forward. Just like free agency, however, it takes more than just one team wanting these deals to be made and the Stars will have to work hard to find the right trade partners and deals that make such transactions worthwhile.

For those wanting the Stars to become overnight successes, this was a dream that was never going to come to fruition. The assets just weren't available in free agency this year and even if they were, the Stars are in the long process of attempting to rebuild their reputation as a desirable target for top free agents. In the meantime, the Stars are attempting to continue to build through the draft and shrewd trades -- the exact same formula that set this franchise on course for the Stanley Cup 15 years ago.

It's understandable to be frustrated at the prospect of another season where the Stars struggle to make the playoffs, but this summer is far from over and there are those that feel that even with the lack of perceived improvement -- this team is indeed better than it was last season.

It's a long summer ahead and the Stars are just getting started. Let's see where this team stands in September and then cast our judgment.

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