The price to be paid for improvement is always going to be steep, whether that price is paid through free agency and cap space, through failures and a high draft, or through the assets needed to acquire the talented pieces necessary to change the course of a hockey franchise.
On Thursday the Dallas Stars certainly paid such a high price, sending fan favorite and incredibly underrated winger Loui Eriksson to the Boston Bruins for young center Tyler Seguin. Included in the deal with Stars prospects Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and defenseman Joe Morrow, with veteran center Rich Peverley also coming the way of the Stars.
Parting with Eriksson is tough, one of the classiest players in the NHL and one of the absolute best two-way, puck possession wingers in the NHL. Yet finding talented wingers is much easier than finding franchise-level, 21-year old star centers, and that's exactly what the Dallas Stars have acquired in Tyler Seguin.
When the Dallas Stars hired Jim Nill as general manager just as the 2013 NHL season was concluding, it was done so with the faith that he would usher in the sort of turnaround and change this franchise has been needing for quite some time. Joe Nieuwendyk doesn't get the credit he deserves for the job he did during his four years running the Stars, but Nill was now faced with a much stiffer task.
The Stars have not made the playoffs for five straight seasons now, a drought that taken the franchise firmly out of the media and sports fan landscape in Dallas and left only a very vocal, very supportive yet significantly smaller core fanbase behind. Much of this was due to the ownership and financial issues faced in the wake of Tom Hicks' failures, but in a market like North Texas -- winning is the only way to truly be successful.
The challenge for Jim Nill was attempting to quickly improve a team that has been slowly dismantled in the past few years, saying goodbye to core pieces of the team as it became clear that what was present wasn't exactly working. Nill hired veteran coach Lindy Ruff to replace Glen Gulutzan, but it was the changes on the ice that would be most important.
The Dallas Stars have not been a bad team, so much as this has been a fairly mediocre one -- right in the middle of the Western Conference. The Stars would need to exact a rebuild, although Nill refuses to call it that, without sacrificing potential short term success while also attempting to truly build for the future. This has always been about the end game, about building a team that can sustain a winning culture over many years -- just as the Stars enjoyed from 1997 or so to 2008.
The trouble with that goal is that while the Stars have a number of promising prospects in the developmental system, with a few promising wingers ready to make the jump, this was an organization devoid of the elite talent needed to truly grow the team. With the departure of Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott and Derek Roy the past few years, there also became a very real need for quality centers at the NHL level -- with none in the system ready to move into that position.
The first big step came on draft day, when the Dallas Stars instantly jumped at the chance to draft Russian phenom Valeri Nichushkin. Suddenly the Dallas Stars had acquired an incredibly talent, exciting and elite-level young prospect the likes of which the Stars hadn't seen in the first round since Mike Modano. Yet the goal remained improving the on-ice product of the Stars, and especially improving up the middle.
Jim Nill has stated, almost from the moment he took the job, he would like to move Jamie Benn back to the wing where he naturally belongs. The trick with this goal was that the team would need to acquire not one, but two, top-six centers. All week there was talk of possibly signing Vincent Lecavalier, or Tyler Bozak, or Stephen Weiss. There also persisted the rumor that the team could make a big move for Boston Bruins center Tyler Seguin; speculation that almost seemed too good to be true.
All along it seemed the most realistic option for the Dallas Stars would be to overpay a veteran center -- or two -- through free agency. There were talks the Stars were interested in Stephen Weiss, and Valteri Filpulla's name kept coming up, and the pursuit of Vinnie Lecavalier certainly didn't go as well as hoped. While the Stars certainly needed help up the middle, this is also a team that is supposedly getting younger and setting itself up for the next decade or so for success.
The trade for Tyler Seguin came at a great cost, although the value of a budding 21-year old star center is exceptionally higher than a 28-year old right wing, even one of Eriksson's abilities. The window for Eriksson has now started to close, and suddenly the Stars have put the pieces in place to not just improve in the short term but to become a contending hockey team for the long haul as well.
Jamie Benn (24), Tyler Seguin (21), Valeri Nichushkin (18), Brenden Dillon (22), Alex Chiasson (22), and Cody Eakin (22) suddenly make up a very promising and young core group of players for the Stars to continue to build around.
Make no mistake, this is not the only move needed this summer. This is a team still in need of help on the wing, especially with Eriksson now gone, with several of the same-caliber defensemen crowding the blue line in Dallas and in Austin. Suddenly, however, the future of this franchise looks much different than it did when the season ended in April.
Loui Eriksson will always be one of the most popular players to ever don the Dallas Stars sweater, and it's going to be hard to say goodbye to such an incredibly classy player. Yet the price to find a top line center was always going to be profoundly high, and the Stars had to make a very tough decision in dealing No. 21.
In the end, however, the makeup of this Dallas Stars team has drastically shifted this offseason and free agency has yet to truly begin. The future, as it has been for quite some time, is brighter than ever before and it's an incredibly exciting time to be a fan of this team.