The Dallas Stars made a hard push to land free agent center Vincent Lecavalier and despite offering a very competitive contract, the 33-year old veteran center decided to take his services to Philadelphia. The Dallas Stars hung in until the end, even thought to be the favorites up until the actual decision was made, yet the Flyers made a late push in the end it seems as though Lecavalier basically made his choice based on personal preference.
It's frustrating, especially for a team desperate for a top center and a "splash" in the marketplace, yet this was not the only path for the Dallas Stars and Jim Nill in improving the team this summer.
The Dallas Stars have been in need of center help for two years now, especially after trading away Steve Ott for Derek Roy and swapping Mike Ribeiro for Cody Eakin. Roy is now gone and the Stars are left with a promising third-line center and a No. 1 center who really belongs on the wing.
The decision to move Jamie Benn to center two seasons ago was necessitated by the impending departure of Brad Richards; instead of attempting to replace a top center through the expensive path of free agency or trade, Joe Nieuwendyk decided to attempt to move his most promising player into a high-pressure position and attempt to get the most out of him.
It was understandable at the time, especially given the circumstances of the team's finances and ownership issues, and moving Benn to center was supposed to maximize his value as a franchise player. After nearly two seasons at the position, however, it's clear that Benn's most valuable where he can really do the most damage -- from the wing.
In 2011-2012, Benn was one of the best even-strength forwards in the NHL at the center position and was used extensively by coach Glen Gulutzan to cover up the defensive liabilities of others on the team. He was paired with less-skilled wingers, such as Adam Burish or Steve Ott, and the line was generally very effective up and down the ice. Despite this, Benn was still unable to truly break out offensively -- although 63 points in 71 games is still impressive.
This past season, plagued by a late start to the season and injury issues, Benn began to be victimized defensively. While never the NHL's most versatile two-way forward, Benn had shown to be effective in his own end his first three seasons in the NHL; it became clear, perhaps, that his skill set and abilities just aren't fully tuned to being the No. 1 center and all of the responsibilities that come with it.
This isn't a knock against Benn. He's still one of the better young centers in the NHL. Yet there is a belief that he could be truly great, that he could finally rise to that elite level, if he could just move back to the wing to play alongside a competent center in the middle.
As a younger player first in the NHL, Benn played with unfettered pressure and was capable of completely dominating games more often than not. During stretches of the 2010-2011 season, especially the second-half of the year, Benn put the team on his back and nearly carried them to playoff contention on his own accord when Brad Richards' concussion issues continued. The "Jamie Benn power play" was coined for his ability to turn the tide while on the penalty kill, and there's a very good reason to think that a more mature and experienced Jamie Benn could reach all new levels should he be able to head back to the wing.
The Dallas Stars agree.
"That's my thinking. I believe that's his natural position," Stars GM Jim Nill told Mike Heika, regarding Benn's possible move back to the wing. "But, it's a nice option to have (keeping him at center) if we can't find the centers we need."
Despite missing out on Lecavalier, it's clear the plan remains for the Stars to aggressively pursue and acquire two centers. This is a very tall order, however, as it's not just about acquiring two centers to fill out roster spots just to move Jamie Benn to the wing, but about finding the right fit both cost-wise and for the organization -- and making sure the players acquired actually improve the team. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to remember a time when an NHL team attempted to fill the top-two center positions in one offseason.
Lecavalier was the biggest name on the market, but there are many other options available. Free agency will be the first option for the Stars, with players like Stephen Weiss, Valtteri Filpulla, Danny Briere on the market -- along with former Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro. You can probably rule out Derek Roy as a possible option. Most of these options are older veterans and while they are not the long-term, flashy solutions that Stars fans would hope for -- this is the market you're faced with when trying to improve via free agency.
Nathan Horton, who has played wing the past few seasons but has played center before in his career and is just 28 years old, continues to be rumored as a target of the Dallas Stars. If he were signed, it's unknown if he'd be at wing or center -- but the option would be there.
Attempting to find not one but two centers via free agency is a fool's errand, however -- and the hope is that the Stars would avoid a Terry Pegula - Buffalo Sabres situation from 2011, when the team attempted to rebuild the roster in one offseason and overspent on overvalued players.
Trades also remain a very viable option, even with the NHL Draft now behind us. The Edmonton Oilers are reportedly looking to trade Shawn Horcoff, and there's always the possibility of making a blockbuster deal to acquire RFA center Sam Gagner. Colorado (Paul Statsny), Philadelphia (Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn) and Boston (Tyler Seguin) also appear to be viable trade partners for the Stars.
Seguin, however, appears to be completely off the market after being shopped over draft weekend. The Bruins are going to be hard-pressed to keep that contract (six years, $5.75 per) after signing Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, and the thought is he could still be available for the right price.
Even if the Stars fail to land two centers, the team will still be more than capable with Benn back to the top center position. It's something they're comfortable with moving forward, although it's clear that Nill is focused on maximizing the talents of his roster and to do so -- Benn must move back to the wing.
The price for such a move won't be cheap, whether that's through trade or free agency, but this is a team that is finally working aggressively to improve the roster and get back to the postseason. The trick is to do so judiciously. Jim Nill's first big test has only just begun.