This is a conversation that has carried on for at least the last five years, and started almost immediately after the the Western Conference Finals loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 2008, and one that seems won't be ending anytime soon. The Dallas Stars have suffered for too long without a true "No. 1" defenseman and the frustration over this void on the team has built and built over the years, to the point where it seems as if some are desperate for anything at all to be done to correct this issue.
That mentality can be a dangerous game for teams to fall victim to.
A top defenseman is tough to define and therefore is tough to put an exact value on. Is it a big, shutdown blueline who can eat 25+ minutes, or a puck-moving defenseman with questionable defensive ability but with astronomical offensive potential? The best teams, obviously, have a healthy combination of the two and the rare defenseman is the one that embodies the best of both worlds and moves from merely being a "top pairing defenseman" to a "true No. 1 defenseman that a franchise can hang their hat on to help lead their team to glory.
There's no doubting that the Dallas Stars need one of these types of players. Alex Goligoski is perhaps, at best, a very good second pairing defenseman who has the freedom to lead the offense. Stephane Robidas has done his best as the de facto No. 1 for the Stars the past four years, but he's far from the top player the Stars need. Brenden Dillon shows promise and while he's playing well next to Robidas, he's still far from being a 25+ minute player. Jamie Oleksiak shows potential, but he's only five games into his NHL career.
So, what should the Dallas Stars do about this problem? There's a school of thought, that has been prevalent for four years now, that the Stars need to be aggressive in acquiring such a player and should be active in targeting potential top-pairing defensemen either through trade or free agency.
The problem is that such high-profile defensemen very, very rarely hit free agency. Ryan Suter is perhaps the latest example of a potential top defenseman hitting the open market and it took nearly $100 million to land him; Suter is good, but nearly everyone agrees he's not as good as that price tag would suggest -- but that's what the market was for such a player.
The next option, through a trade, is sometimes just as costly -- if not more. Typically, top defensemen do not become available through trade unless they are months away from free agency unless another team is willing to pay a hefty price for such a player.
I took a look back at the most notable trades involving top pairing defensemen, going back about five years.
|2011||Sharks||Brent Burns, '12 2nd round pick (#37)||Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, '11 1st round pick (#28)||Wild|
|2009||Ducks||Ryan Whitney||Chris Kunitz, Eric Tangradi||Penguins|
|2010||Oilers||Ryan Whitney, '10 6th rounder (#162)||Lubomir Visnovsky||Ducks|
|2006||Ducks||Chris Pronger||Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, '07 1st round pick (#30), '08 1st round pick (#22) '08 2nd round pick (#53)||Oilers|
|2009||Flyers||Chris Pronger, Ryan Dingle||Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, '09 1st round pick (#21), '10 1st round pick (#29), conditional 3rd round pick||Ducks|
|2008||Sharks||Brian Campbell, '08 7th round pick||Steve Bernier, '08 1st round pick (#26)||Sabres|
|2011||Lightning||Eric Brewer||rights to Brock Beukeboom, '11 3rd round pick(#87)||Blues|
|2011||Bruins||Tomas Kaberle||Joe Colborne, '11 1st round pick (#30), '12 conditional 2nd round pick (#54)||Maple Leafs|
|2011||Panthers||Brian Campbell||Rostislav Olesz||Blackhawks|
There are a few instant conclusions to be made here, the first of which is that it's very rare that a truly great defenseman is ever traded. This list was pared down from one twice as long that listed "top" defenseman trades the past few years, and these were the top players left. It's also important to note that a number of these trades (Brent Burns, Jay Bouwmeester, Chris Pronger, Eric Brewer and Tomas Kaberle) were all made in advance of the player becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Thus, not only did the team give up a hefty fortune to acquire such a player but then had to pony up a hefty contract to keep that player with the franchise. The Bruins gave up a first and second round pick, along with Joe Colborne, only to lose Kaberle a few months later to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Ducks gave up Tangradi and Kunitz to get Whitney, who was later traded to the Oilers while Kunitz became a key members of a Cup-winning hockey team.
So, caution is warranted when pushing for a trade to happen sooner than later.
For the Stars to make such a move a few things must happen. First, the Stars must be willing to part with a first round pick that could very well end up higher than some of those relinquished above -- then a team must be willing to actually move such a player, and that scenario usually doesn't present itself unless the defenseman is a pending UFA with no hopes of actually staying.
Teams that go after such players, a possible "rental" that requires a relatively high price, are generally the teams in need of a final piece or two on defense for a hopeful postseason Cup run -- not a team, like the Stars, that is still in the middle of a rebuild while hopefully competing for the postseason. That doesn't mean that the Stars should not be looking to potentially upgrading the roster, but going after the true top defenseman is something that could prove to be too costly both in the short and long-term.
The Dallas Stars are in need of a franchise defenseman to anchor the blue line for years to come. Looking at the list above, it's tough to find players that possibly fit that description aside from, perhaps, Brent Burns. Even Brian Campbell, when he was traded in 2008 at the age of 28, played just 20 games with the Sharks before signing an 8-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
That doesn't mean that good deals won't be available. This coming summer is going to be interesting in the landscape of trades and free agency as several teams are in need of dumping salary in order to get under the salary cap for next season. Teams like the Stars could have the opportunity to take advantage of other teams in cap trouble -- going back to Campbell, the Panthers picked up the then-31-year old defenseman in 2011 for a spare part.
Should the Stars be on the lookout for such opportunities? Absolutely. The franchise certainly has the assets to move to make such a trade, but would the Stars be willing -- and should they if they are -- to give up significant assets for a rental blueliner? As much as we'd like it to happen, teams just aren't willing to give up top defensemen under long-term contract and even then -- expect to give up more than a single first round pick in order to do so.
Whether the Stars are even willing to part with these assets is questionable, with GM Joe Nieuwendyk stating just how much he values his draft picks and prospects. The reason the Dallas Stars have struggled recently is because of the lack of tangible prospects in the farm system; now that these players are starting to move up, who are the Stars willing to part with in order to actually make such a move? We've seen over the years what the lack of first round picks has done to the franchise, is parting with these picks worth the risk of such a trade?
Trading for a proven No. 1 defenseman, who is actually under contract and isn't a rental, is something that rarely -- if ever -- occurs in the NHL. Too many teams are in too much of a desperate need of these players; the Stars are far from the only team facing such an issue. Trading for a player with the potential to be a top defensman is another discussion entirely, and one that could certainly be a realistic option for the Stars, but one that also carries with it significant risk.
See: Alex Goligoski.
If we look the top defensemen for the Cup-winning teams over the past few years we see a very legitimate trend: Nearly all of the top blueliners for the best teams in the NHL were drafted by that team: Drew Doughty, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Kris Letang, just to name a few. Chris Pronger helped the Ducks to win the Cup in 2007, so perhaps it could be seen that the price tag to acquire him was then worth it. The Stars, however, are not the team the Ducks were when making that trade.
The Dallas Stars have focused on rebuilding the defense through the draft, just as the best teams in the NHL have done, and unfortunately the team is still a few years out from seeing that potential fully realized. This delay has led to impatience, especially in light of the defense's struggles this season, but history tells us that the Stars should be very wary of being too aggressive in searching for the next franchise defenseman -- they very, very rarely become available through trade, and the cost and risk exceed the benefits in most cases.
The point of all of this rambling is thus: The Dallas Stars finally have a number of young prospects and assets to move, along with a number of draft picks. Just because those assets may be available, does not mean the team should make a trade for the sake of making a desperate move to fix a problem that could have already been addressed through the draft.