As the uncertain summer of 2011 rolls along fans of the Dallas Stars continue to reflect on what has been and what might be in regards to the ownership situation and this nebulous, seemingly far-off time in the future when the team's financial situation will allow them a more competitive NHL roster. Most equate that directly to "Brad Richards or no Brad Richards?"
With so much focus off-ice this summer it might be nice to occasionally look at that team does have in place moving forward and how the potential loss of a Brad Richards might be mitigated when the puck drops on the 2011-2012 season.
Mike Ribeiro we know. Jamie Benn we are getting to know (it's like a blooming bromance, isn't it?). That's #1 and #2, in whatever order you'd like to put them, assuming limited action in free agency as has been the custom for years now. Next in line is Tom Wandell, and that's where things get a little tenuous.
What is Tom Wandell, exactly? What is his ceiling? Will he be a part of Joe Nieuwendyk's long term plan moving forward after his contract expires at the end of next season? Ask a Stars fan to describe Tom Wandell and you'll get an amalgam of "young" and "fast" and "potential" mixed with "I don't know what they see in him," and no one is really wrong about any of that.
For someone who talks Stars 365 days a year every year it feels like Tom Wandell has been around for a long time, but the fact is that his debut came only midway through the 2008-2009 season and that the 24 year old has played in only 139 NHL games; not even two full seasons worth. Injuries have plagued him. He blew one ACL the year he was drafted and then the other in his first (would-be) full NHL season 50 games in. He started last year with a shoulder injury, managed to get 75 games in, and then injured his shoulder again at the IIHF World Championship.
We cautioned last summer that we had not yet seen a full year of Tom Wandell and now that we have I think the "benefit of the doubt" remains, but a lot of questions are left unanswered. Most notably: 9 points in 75 games? Is that good enough?
Is 2011-2012 the year Tom Wandell takes the next step and earns another contract from Joe Nieuwendyk...?
Continued after the jump...
The season began with high hopes of a Tom Wandell/Steve Ott chemistry set that would give the Stars balanced scoring across three lines and Jamie Benn was added to that mix at one point, but outside of one magical October night in south Florida that trio failed to pop and Wandell's journey through innumerable forward combinations was set into motion.
He would land with Jamie Langenbrunner later in the season and that pairing would prove effective to the eye ball test, even it wasn't on the score sheet, but still fans found themselves asking about his production.
Tom's season took a definite upturn in the last quarter of the season. In those 21 games he scored four goals, recorded one assist, had an even plus-minus ratio and averaged over thirteen minutes a game on the ice. Compare that with the first 54 games of his year where he recorded only three goals (two of them in the same game) and an assist and played only about eleven minutes a night and was -5.
He took 54 shots in first 54 games this season and 40 shots in the last 21. Going from one shot a game to two may not seem like a monumentally significant change on the surface but it was for Wandell, who told the media he was going to make a concerted effort to get more pucks on net as the season wore on. That's a good sign moving forward but he has to establish some consistency in this contract year.
He needs a niche if he's going to stay. He's not been a particularly strong faceoff man. He doesn't play on the PP. He has 11 other guys on the team that played more on the PK than he did last year. He has drawn some defensive assignments and kept his opponents in check admirably when asked, but his speed and hands suggest he's capable of more and that can sometimes frustrate fans. I'm willing to bet it frustrates him a little as well.
(It's worth mentioning that he is among team leaders in drawing penalties, an underrated but important thing for every team. Read more about that here.)
Mike Modano was supposedly let go last summer to offer Wandell and Benn more playing time and a chance to spread their wings a little. Jamie Benn? Check. Tom Wandell? ...incomplete, let's say.
As fans we know (think we know?) that Wandell can be more and we hope it's time for him to show it. Depth at center is key in this league. Without Brad Richards the Stars are just one little injury away from Tom Wandell logging 18~ minutes a night in a top six capacity and maybe even getting some PP time, and that's if they don't use Steve Ott as a center instead first. Can GM Joe Nieuwendyk invest in that future without seeing a little more next season?
It's entirely possible that the Stars re-sign Brad Richards or get another center to help fill in and in that case Wandell's role can be a little more fluid moving forward with less pressure on him to contribute more offensively.
"There's still time," as we say around these parts. 139 games is right around the time things started to pick up for Loui Eriksson, which isn't to say Tom Wandell can be Loui Eriksson, just that for some it takes time for things to really click and come together. Here's hoping that things click with Mr. Wandell next year.