2014 NHL Free Agency: No Defensemen? Short-Term Center? What the Dallas Stars Should Do This Summer

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Will the Dallas Stars really be willing to signing Paul Stastny to a seven-year contract? We look at the more realistic scenarios for this summer.

This is the summer that Dallas Stars fans have been waiting for, it seems. After years of ownership issues and stagnant prospect pools and the inability to even contend in the free agent market had made most summers come and go without much excitement. A few years ago, of course, Joe Nieuwendyk traded away Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott and the Stars landed Jaromir Jagr -- yet none of the moves, which included signing Ray Whitney, screamed that the team was ready to really take that big step into perennial postseason contender.

For the longest time the Dallas Stars and the franchise's fans have played the waiting game. "Patience," the fans were told. "There's light at the end of the tunnel! We have exciting prospects and the team is slowly improving. We just have to wait for them to be ready." Over the past two years the Stars roster has been almost completely turned upside down, with long-time veterans and stalwarts in the locker room replaced by a young and speedy team comprised almost equally of free agents and players that came from within the Stars organization.

It's been a very, very long time since that has happened with this franchise. Combined with the actual success of that young roster this past season, along with the success of the prospects for the Texas Stars in Cedar Park, has moved up the timetable of expectations and has sped along the process of thought of "we're done waiting, and the time to strike is now."

What makes this summer so interesting and intriguing is that it's suddenly clear exactly what the Dallas Stars are, where the strengths lie and where the weaknesses remain. The acquisition of Tyler Seguin turned out to be incredibly more beneficial than anyone imagined and suddenly -- along with Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin -- the Stars have one of the most exciting and dynamic lines in the NHL. Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley took a big step forward in their careers, yet it was clear in the postseason that the Stars' defense is where most of the weaknesses lie.

So when you have clearly identified strengths and weaknesses, and appear to be much closer to contention that first expected, taking advantage of the franchise's ability to actually go out and address those concerns suddenly becomes incredibly attractive. After all, this is the general manager that went and snagged Tyler Seguin and made the right decision in hiring Lindy Ruff, who does so much research and has so much knowledge that its inevitable that another big moves is made that propels this team directly to the next level.

That's not how Jim Nill operates, however.

From the beginning, Nill's sight has been set on the long-term health of this franchise. While he understands the desire and the need for instant success, his concern is with building an organization that gets to the postseason and remains there for a decade -- this was how it worked in Detroit and that's what he's preached since landing in Dallas. It's why Lindy Ruff was such a good fit, a coach that understood how to make a long-term relationship and plan work in the NHL and it's why the team was willing to give up so much for Tyler Seguin -- this wasn't just a quick fix, this was a 22-year old phenom center who was under contract for five more years.

This was the plan last summer, and that's bound to be the plan now. Right now the Stars are facing a trade market and a free agency market that is getting more and more expensive by the day -- not just in dollars but in term as well; with teams facing the salary cap the long-term contract has become the norm, with players seeking 6-8 years when hitting free agency even if that commitment is nowhere near worth it for the team -- like Dave Bolland, for example.

The issue with the Stars right now is they are caught between being ready for instant improvement and playoff contention while also still having an eye on the future and the young prospects in the pipeline that could be ready in the next few years. Is it worth going for a player that would certainly improve the team now and next season and perhaps the next, while having to commit to a seven-year contract that would hold back promising prospects in the near future?

More importantly, how much are the Stars willing to give up just to get one of those big names on the trade market -- or in free agency? And how much can you bank on those players even wanting to come to Dallas?

Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler are both looking to go to a situation where they can "win now" and while the Stars are improving, they aren't exactly in that spot just yet. There's also the fact that Spezza (one year) and Kesler (two years) are going to cost a hefty amount and are only guaranteed to be in Dallas for a short time -- and would the Stars want to give Spezza the long-term extension he's reportedly seeking?

Nothing has indicated that the Stars have more than an "interest" in either of these players, with Spezza being the most likely and Dallas has yet to really be consistently mentioned in much of the rumor talk among the more notable hockey writers around the league.

Of course, this tweet by Bruce Garrioch didn't pop up until after our article this morning on Jason Spezza, so take that for what you will.

Most importantly, nothing has ever indicated that Jim Nill is looking to give such a long-term contract to any "older" player like Kesler or Spezza. Would Spezza be a good fit in Dallas? He'd certainly be an upgrade over Eakin at No. 2 center, but would it be worth making what would ultimately be a seven-year commitment to an older player after giving up significant assets in return? Especially considering there's not even a guarantee he re-signs in Dallas, unless an agreement is made in advance, of course.

So, where does that leave the Stars and their options? It's obvious that some sort of change and improvement is needed on the second line, even with Eakin looking better and better as the season continued. Mikhail Grabovski and Brad Richards are both decent options that would not require a long-term commitment, and while perhaps not as dynamic as Kesler or Spezza would still provide the balance and improvement the Stars are seeking.

Mike Heika agrees, and gives some frustrating news on the hopes for Paul Stastny:

The Stars do not appear ready to commit to a six- or seven-year contract on any player unless he is the perfect fit for the organization. This is mostly in regards to the center position, because that's where some very good players are available.

[snip]

Paul Stastny could become a free agent in Colorado, but his contract will likely be seven years. While the Stars aren't afraid of the cost (possibly $6 million to $7 million a season), they aren't really interested in the term. Part of the reason for that is the fact Dallas has two solid center prospects who could be a couple of years away in Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore. Either could be a No. 2 center in the NHL, and while it is a risk to wait for them, the fact that Dallas has two players who could battle for that privilege makes it a little more plausible to keep them in your plans

Stastny has long been the top hypothetical target for Dallas Stars fans, given his age and penchant for being a very good two-way center with great offensive ability. Yet now that the center is on the open market his value has skyrocketed and while the annual value of the contract isn't the issue it's clear that Jim Nill isn't too open to making a seven year commitment to a center when he has so many promising young centers in the pipeline.

So, if the Stars likely aren't going to be in on Paul Stastny what about Joe Thornton? The 35-year old center remains one of the best playmakers in the NHL and while a trade would be costly the contract term is much more amenable to the Dallas Stars' long and short term plans. The problem is that there's no telling if Thornton will even be traded, or if he'd choose to come to Dallas if so. So various options depend on the outcome of the other, but no one knows when anything will actually be resolved -- right now, it seems the Senators may make a decision on Spezza soon, however.

While all of this may sound concerning, this isn't too say the Stars aren't focused on improving the roster for this next season. The No. 2 center position is priority number one for the Stars this summer, followed perhaps by a scoring winger for the top two lines. Stars fans have to be prepared, however, that once again the "flashy" move might not be made and a more conservative decision occurs; Grabovski would be a great addition to the Stars, even if he doesn't have the same fanfare as Stastny.

With all of this talk about centers and the forward position, it's becoming clear that the defense is no longer the instant priority that fans perhaps think it should be. When the Stars used a compliance buyout on Aaron Rome it wasn't with the idea of making space for a major trade or free agent signing; Nill explicitly stated that the Stars wanted to make room for some of the young defensemen that garnered extra experience in the AHL playoffs -- Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrkki Jokipakka will all be pushing for NHL minutes next season.

There are a number of good defensemen on the market this summer, including Mark Fayne and perhaps Anton Stralman, that would be decent additions to the Stars blueline. Yet any addition would involve a subtraction and I get the feeling that if the Stars do find a way to move Sergei Gonchar and his contract, it would be to add a space for one of the young defensemen rather than a big-name free agent or trade target.

Why wouldn't the Stars want to go hard after a defenseman given the defensive struggles of the past few years? The team believes that the defensive group as a whole made significant improvements as the season went progressed, and that the experience of the defensement in the NHL was invaluable to their development and that there's not exactly the pressing need to go out and overspend on an outside option -- especially at a time when the focus on defensive development in the organization is finally starting to show results.

This all isn't to say the Stars aren't looking and open to all options, and aren't open to the idea of adding that perfect defenseman if he comes available -- but right now it seems the focus remains on improving from within and making moves with both the short and long-term in mind, and that includes the center position as well as the defense. Right now, Jason Spezza seems to be the most likely of any scenario listed above -- and that's still contingent on his desires as far as a long-term extension goes.

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