Following the first truly successful season for the Dallas Stars since 2008, a season that benefited from a multitude of changes both on and off the ice and led to the first postseason berth in six years for the hockey team. Last summer, new general manager Jim Nill made an indelible mark on this franchise with his acquisition of Tyler Seguin and shrewd hiring of Lindy Ruff, and many were wondering what he had up his sleeve for his second act.
We wrote earlier that the actions of this summer would have a very direct impact on the path of this franchise, whether the Stars stuck with building from within and letting the roster simmer a bit while the young players developed both in the NHL and elsewhere. There were signs that the Stars were concerned with the price of making moves to improve the team and many wondered leading up to free agency just what the heck the plan was moving forward for the Stars.
Jim Nill always has a plan.
The Dallas Stars general manager answered the bell with a flurry of moves to start free agency, trading Alex Chiasson and couple of prospects for center Jason Spezza and then quickly signing winger Ales Hemsky just an hour into free agency. Goaltender Anders Lindback was also signed, as well as depth forward Patrick Eaves, but it was the former two that Nill had been focused on for quite some time.
"Well, we knew Jason, it was probably about two months ago when it was announced that Jason was probably going to get traded, so we started making some calls," said Nill on Tuesday. "But there are so many factors in place. There are other players out there that are possibly getting traded, go through your free agent list. You've got to figure out your cap and all that, so there's lots of kind of work that has to go into it. But it kind of came together kind of at the draft when things started to fall into place a little more and then the last two days things sped up. You start getting to a deadline with free agency and it's decision time."
While the Stars had been kicking the tires on Spezza and only really joined the hunt during the draft, Hemsky says the Stars have been a team that seemed it would be his destination all along.
"Yeah, we talked a lot the last month," said Hemsky. "They showed the most interest. They have a great team with Jamie Benn and Seguin and now adding Jason Spezza, it's a great fit for me. Finally I can enjoy hockey again and that's a great city too. I'm really excited."
The amazing part of this deal was Dallas reuniting two linemates from last season who enjoyed a lot of success the latter part of the year together, without either player realizing it could be a possibility. Jason Spezza was outright ecstatic when he learned that Hemsky had been signed as well, another great sign that the Stars have something special building in Dallas.
What that exactly is, however, is still not clear. The Stars acquired four new players on Wednesday and theoretically are now right up against the salary cap when you factor in the RFAs that have yet to be signed. Word is that the Stars are still not content and Nill would like to add one more forward, likely a bottom-six guy to help replace Vernon Fiddler's minutes, and if that were to happen some other moves would need to happen as well.
"We got one spot we can add but we're just going to kind of sit on the outside and see what happens," said Nill. "It's kind of a depth, fourth line, third, fourth line depth type of position."
That's likely the hold up on the next step the Stars take. Nill has spoken at length the past few days about how confident he is in the young defensemen in the Stars organization and how that changed the focus on the offseason a bit. Yet one wonders if the Stars, even if they're still looking to just add depth on the bottom six, would need to clear some salary to at least pull off the cap ceiling a bit and perhaps get down to that darn "internal payroll" we're always referencing.
One wonders just how much more Tom Gaglardi has cleared Nill to spend this season. Spezza's cap hit this next year $7 million but he's owed just $4 million in salary and the Stars have several other contracts with similar ratios. The payroll isn't as high as it might seem, but one does wonder about the cap ceiling and how much flexibility the Stars want and need to have.
That's the long game, however, and right now it's clear the Stars are done for the day. More may happen in the coming days but even if no other moves occur, the Dallas Stars have been thrust right into the middle of the conversation about contenders in the Western Conference -- and it's a good thing too, as the Central Division got even harder the past week.
So far, Nill's moves have been almost universally praised. While Spezza's contract status makes things a bit unclear after this season, the Stars have done a masterful job in both improving in the short and long-term without giving up anything that could harm the future development of the organization. That was Jim Nill's number one priority this summer.
"We knew that if we didn't do anything, we've got some good kids coming," said Nill. "Wasn't going to overpay for anything. Didn't want to give up too many assets if I didn't have to for the wrong type of player. We did give up a lot of assets in this trade, but we're getting a great player in return. Last year when we made the Seguin trade, I know everybody was saying, ‘Boy, they didn't give up much.' Well, we realize how good Reilly Smith is. And I know the Ottawa people are going to realize Alex Chiasson, Guptill and Paul, how good a player these guys are. I thought Ottawa did a great job in identifying the right players, much like Boston did when we did the trade last year. It's a good hockey trade for everybody."
It was a good hockey day for Dallas, that's for certain. The Stars are going to be an improved team next season, even if no more changes are made and the defense remains largely the same. It's amazing what having an actual one-two punch down the middle can do for a team.
It's going to be a long summer.