We knew something was going to happen.
Yesterday afternoon a source informed DBD that the Dallas Stars were working on a trade that was nearly finalized, one that involved the swapping of "two veterans" in what was described as an odd move for the team. When the details finally emerged that the Stars had traded winger Michael Ryder to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Erik Cole, it was tough to nail down exactly how to feel about one heck of a head-scratcher of a trade.
For one, Michael Ryder was on a six-game point streak (2 goals, 7 assists) and had seemingly found some legitimate chemistry with Cody Eakin on the Stars' second line. In fact, I was already making plans on writing a column on the "rejuvenated" Michael Ryder who has suddenly become a slick setup man for the young kids on his line.
Suffice it to say, I liked having Ryder on the Stars and enjoyed watching what he could bring to the ice. He brought a dynamic to the Stars the team was missing, especially last season, and the past few weeks had recovered from an exceptionally mediocre start for the right wing to become the co-leading scorer for the Stars in goals and assists.
So why make this trade now, if at all?
It's clear that the Stars were concerned with the pending free agent status of Ryder and the thought of possibly losing him for nothing this summer should he be looking for too rich a contract. There have also been indications that while his offense has picked up as of late, Ryder doesn't exactly fit the mold of the team that the Stars are trying to build and will welcome the two-way ability and physical game that Cole brings to the ice.
From a business standpoint, it makes a bit of sense -- sort of. Ryder was set to be a free agent this summer and Cole is under contract for two more years after this season; that long-term stability is something that Nieuwendyk specifically pointed out on Tuesday when discussing the trade.
"We looked down the road at when Michael is a UFA this summer - we have to make a decision on all of our UFAs - and when we were discussing whether we would entertain the idea of re-signing this player, the opportunity came about with Erik Cole," said Nieuwendyk. "It gives ourselves some size and strength to compete in the West and two years provides us some security."
While Cole is certainly under contract for two more seasons, it's at the high price of $4.5 million per season; for a player who will be turning 35 next season, that's a tough pill to swallow when you consider the very real concerns that his late-career decline has already begun. If the Stars were willing to pay Cole $4.5 million, why not attempt to keep Ryder for similar money and keep the draft pick?
On the issue of that third-round draft pick the Stars had to give up in order to complete the trade, a pick that seemed to put many Stars fans over the edge into hysterical negativity -- the Stars had three third-round picks this summer; Nieuwendyk obviously feels strongly about this trade to even think about giving up that asset. The Stars still hold onto two picks in the round which will likely be high picks in the third, compared to the low third round pick they gave up to Montreal -- depending on how the Stars fare this season.
So, I'm not that concerned with losing the draft pick.
What is concerning is attempting to determine exactly what the Dallas Stars and Joe Nieuwendyk are hoping to accomplish with this move. We've had more than a few discussions the past few years about the "identity" of the Stars and just what sort of team Nieuwendyk is hoping to build. For nearly four years now the Stars have appeared nearly directionless with a high turnover on the roster -- it's seemed that each season was a patchwork attempt to make the playoffs in that particular season without an actual direction into the future.
These circumstances could be tied back to the financial constraints placed upon the franchise but only recently have the Stars made significant moves in an attempt to forge an identity for the team moving forward.
How does Erik Cole fit into the plans for the Stars, with the team supposedly embracing a "youth movement" and giving big minutes to young players that are clearly part of a budding young core of players?
"We want to be in a position to transition our younger players and put them in roles where they can be successful and comfortable and then expand into more prominent roles," Nieuwendyk said on Tuesday. "I think the two-year term with Erik allows us to put some of our younger players in better positions where they can be successful and help that transition."
Once again, Nieuwendyk places the emphasis on the development of and transition to these younger players but the actions don't seem to back that up, at least at first glance. Nieuwendyk specifically stated he envisions a top-six role for Cole on the second line, a curious conclusion to make considering the offensive success of the Stars with Ryder on the third line. In fact, let's attempt to see exactly where Cole will even fit in with the team as it stands right now...
Morrow - Benn - Jagr
Cole - Roy - Eriksson
Fraser/Roussel - Eakin - Smith
Nystrom - Fiddler - Garbutt
That could be what the Stars are looking at Thursday night, with Eriksson sticking on the right wing with Roy as that line has started to really click the past two games. The big question is what happens in two weeks when Ray Whitney returns; who gets bumped down the lineup even further to make room for Cole and Whitney in the top six?
One thing is clear, at least for the immediate future -- the Stars are still going to be hesitant to give top six minutes to young players and will once again lean heavily on the veterans in the lineup to lead the way. For those that are looking past this season and to the future, it's tough to look past another example of the Stars being perhaps too hesitant to give the young players a chance -- a frustration that is certainly justified considering just how successful players like Smith, Roussel and Eakin have been in expanded roles this season.
Still, you can see the logic the Stars are using here. Cole is the type of player that the Stars need to provide a transition to the young players that aren't at the NHL level, guys like Alex Chiasson and perhaps Matej Stransky or Brett Ritchie. As much as Michael Ryder had done for the Stars, it's tough to say that he would exactly be the "mentor" type of veteran the Stars will need moving forward.
What is also clear is that Joe Nieuwendyk and the Dallas Stars want to win this season and they desperately want to make the playoffs. Attempting to win now and build for the future is a dangerous two-way game that doesn't always work and it's a strategy that has essentially failed the Stars in each of the past three seasons; of course, the Stars haven't been as committed to the youth in the past as they have this season.
As for the long-term future, the Stars are still fairly flexible. As of right now, Dallas has 17 players under contract with right around $19 million remaining in cap space. There is still room there to make a bit of a splash in free agency and re-sign Derek Roy, as well as room to make decisions on Brenden Morrow and Jaromir Jagr; there's also room there for more trades to be made -- something that Nieuwendyk clearly hinted at during the conference call on Tuesday.
While we struggle with the idea of the Stars getting younger yet continuing to add older vets, we have to look past just this season -- as of now, the Stars only have Erik Cole signed past next season as the true "veteran" player that every team needs. He's great in the locker room and the Stars have gone after him in part to help mentor the young players moving forward.
Still, as I sit back and look at this trade after a good night's sleep I'm left with my initial reaction: a bit baffled, more than a bit concerned but also a bit hopeful that perhaps the full picture isn't exactly clear just yet.
This move has Bob Gainey's fingers all over it and it's more than a little reminiscent of the way the Dallas Stars were being built back in the mid 1990s. When I heard the Stars had traded for a gritty veteran forward with superb leadership skills in the twilight of his career, I immediately thought back to the acquisition of Guy Carbonneau.
Back in 1995 the Stars were certainly a team in transition, with Gainey attempting to bolster a team built around a group of young but skilled players on offense and defense -- the Stars used a series of shrewd trades and free agent signings to build around a strong young core.
Fast forward to now and the Stars are looking to follow the same path, albeit in a bit of a different way in a new era of hockey. The core is younger now than it was in 1995 and while we all love Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Brenden Dillon, it's not exactly fair to hold them up to comparisons with Modano, Lehtinen and Hatcher. That being said, you can sort of see the thought process in play here.
Cole scored 35 goals for the Montreal Canadiens last season and while his time in Carolina ended a bit badly, he's experienced a bit of a late-career surge the past two years. This season Cole has struggled with the new coaching staff and seemed a bit disenfranchised with the whole lockout fiasco; his willingness to waive his NTC and uproot his family speaks to just how good he feels a fresh start in Dallas can be.
Cole is also a player that the Dallas Stars need more of, a hard-nosed veteran with good size and very good speed who can crash the net and provide solid two-way play. No matter what his struggles this season may have been, Cole is almost certainly an upgrade overall from Ryder -- similar to the two-way upgrade the Stars made with the trade for Derek Roy.
This is one of those instances where we'll just have to wait and see to really get a good handle on how this trade ultimately works out. Perhaps the full vision for the Stars for this season and beyond and not fully clear just yet, although it's seems obvious the Stars are going to be gearing up for a push for the playoffs this year and could be more active in the trade market than we expected.
Joe Nieuwendyk has shown he's willing to take some big risks and he's taken another here. The trade for Kari Lehtonen worked out beautifully while the trade for Alex Goligoski will probably haunt the Stars for a while. He's taken risks on players that just needed a change of scenery and a new start; Ryder himself enjoyed such a recharge with the Stars after what was seen as a risky contract.
So, we sit back and watch and we wait. We welcome Erik Cole to Dallas and we hope for the best.
Because, really...that's all we can do.