2014 NHL Free Agency: Center Paul Stastny To Test Open Market; What Are the Dallas Stars' Chances?

Doug Pensinger

Could the Dallas Stars be an option for the 28-year old center? Could the Stars afford him?

The Dallas Stars are in the market for a new second-line center, an integral piece of taking that "next step" as a team after a somewhat surprising season and face the tough task of determining just how much to give up for that player. Whether through trade -- where assets are forfeited and a likely heavy contract is acquired -- or free agency, the options of looking outside the organization to fill this need is going to lead down one expensive path.

Enter into the ring center Paul Stastny, who was apparently going to sign a new extension with the Colorado Avalanche last week but will now officially test the open market and see what his true value can bring. Stasny has become of the more noteworthy two-way centers in hockey and was been a staple on the Avs since 2006 when he scored 78 points in 82 games as a rookie.

The dynamic center put up big numbers his first three seasons and earned a hefty five-year, $33 million contract that paid Stastny $6.6 million per season. Since signing the contract, however, his numbers dropped and he's hit the 60-point mark just once in the five seasons since. It should be noted -- the Avalanche took a nosedive as a franchise during this time, and only recently rebounded -- a year which just so happened to be Stastny's best since 2009.

There's no doubt that he'll be the top name and target on the free agent market, and as such he'll be grossly overpaid. Even by today's inflated salary standard $7 million a season is a lot of money to pay a player that hasn't crossed 60 points in five years, but his versatility and ability to play both ends of the ice certainly help to offset that concern. Still, Stastny isn't going to take a big paycut with the Avalanche -- reportedly offering between $5 and $6 million -- if he can earn a hefty raise on the open market.

That doesn't mean he's done with the Avs yet, however. Stastny and his agent have given Colorado the customary "right of first refusal" so that Joe Sakic can at least see the contract he can't match before hearing about it through the media:

...essentially Stastny/Keator have made a vow to Sakic and the Avs: that they will circle back Colorado and give them the right of first refusal to keep him.

The Avs will then be faced with the decision to either come up on their existing offer for him (Sakic won't say exactly what it is, but it's safe to say it's between $5 million and $6 million per year) or let him go. It's dangerous territory for sure. Some team can just make some blowout offer to him for god knows how much money and it might be too good to pass up.

There's questions about this situation on multiple levels when it comes to the Stars, especially given that it's been over a decade since Dallas was last able to land the top player on the free agent market.

Can the Stars afford him?

The simple answer is yes. Important to note that all numbers below are estimates.

The Stars have about $22 million or so in cap space with 15 players already signed. Cody Eakin, Brenden Dillon, and Antoine Roussel will collectively eat up $8-$10 million of that space, and depending on what happens with Sergei Gonchar and his contract might not have a heck of a lot of room after that. It's important to remember that the Stars still have an internal budget and won't likely be a team that continues to spend up to the cap as it rises each year.

Last season the Stars spent around $63 million in salary payroll and I'd expect the budget for this season to be around the same, perhaps a bit higher. Using that figure, that leaves the Stars with somewhere between $7-$9 million in budget room to potentially sign Stastny while also needing a quality backup goaltender.

Finding someone to take Gonchar's contract would certainly help.

There's also the factor that Tom Gaglardi may allow Nill to pull the trigger on a major contract if they believe that Paul Stastny is the answer for the Stars long-term needs at center. With Stasny, who is 28 years old and in the prime of his career, the Stars would essentially have five years guaranteed with one of the better one-two punches down the middle in the NHL, along with Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin and -- someone else -- on the wings. That's an enticing proposition.

Can the Stars compete with other teams?

It's going to likely take seven years and at least $7 million per season to sign Stastny, so now it comes down to which teams can afford that contract and are interested in signing him. The usual suspects -- of course -- will be involved in this one again. It seems the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers will at the top of the list of teams vying for his services, and there's likely to be many more. Those are three marquee franchises (well, perhaps not the Wild) in major hockey markets and every year they're involved in the free agent game, to various degrees of success.

Last summer, Jim Nill came close to signing Vincent Lecavalier before the center chose Philadelphia instead. It seemed as if the deal was close to actually happening, and you wonder what a difference a year can make -- the Stars were a postseason team and sport one of the more exciting young rosters in the NHL, and are trending in the right direction. This is no longer a team hoping to get better and selling nothing but promises, the Stars and Jim NIll and Lindy Ruff have a track record to fall back on to sell this team.

***

It's likely the Stars have around a 20% chance of signing Stastny, and there's no telling if he's even their top priority and target -- it's likely Nill doesn't want to commit to the contract he'll eventually get, but that's impossible to know right now. What we do know is that he'd certainly be the best fit for this team compared to most other options for the No. 2 center spot and that Stastny has moved forward to listening to other teams and seeing what the world looks like outside of Denver.

Let the games begin.

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