Last week, we discussed how the Dallas Stars are caught in the middle between fighting for the playoffs this year while being an average team overall while also being a team attempting to build for the future. It's an interesting dilemma for a team that desperately needs to play well and get to the postseason in order to continue rebuilding the fanbase, yet also must keep in mind that this Stars team is still a few years away from being a legitimate contender.
Since Tom Gaglardi purchased the Dallas Stars in late November, he and his team have done a great job of making some quick changes in order to help promote the team better in Dallas. While most of their focus has been on rebuilding the front office and getting the business side of the organization back on track, we've seen a drop in ticket prices and an increase in entertaining promotions for games -- such as Hockey For Heels.
Getting the fans back into the AAC has been a tall task, yet we've seen a steady increase in attendance since November with Saturday's game against Minnesota selling out. The trick is going to be to hold onto those fans and to increase interest in the Stars in the Dallas area, something that really can't happen without a postseason berth, even as an 8th place team.
So, just how important is it to make the playoffs and how risky should the Stars become in order to accomplish that goal?
The biggest issue facing the organization right now is finding a way to keep those fans that are now showing back up. The team this season, as we've seen over the past month, is an average team full of hard-working, blue collar players that struggles to compete with the upper echelon of teams in the NHL. The Stars are in the middle of a "re-tooling", with Gaglardi willing to spend to build the team again while the Stars attempt to compete with a very low payroll this season.
This has led to inconsistent play, with fans always expecting and wanting more. The game against the Tampa Bay Lightning from a few weeks back is a great example. There was a decent crowd on hand for a Friday night game, yet the Stars played poorly and let a struggling Lightning team beat them at home. The attitudes of the fans -- especially the casual fans -- was one of "what about this team is going to make me want to come back, and convince me I should get season tickets next season?"
The season tickets issue is perhaps the most pressing. With the season ticket holder base down to around just 6,000 this season, perhaps the biggest focus of the team is going to be on rebuilding that base of fans. One way to get those numbers instantly back up would be to get into the playoffs and have an actual NHL playoff game in Dallas for the first time in four years.
The Stars are fighting for relevancy, something we've chronicled fairly well over the past few years. This is a city that loves a winner and will only listen to excuses for losing for so long. Even the Dallas Cowboys are suffering from dwindling home attendance numbers. With the Stars competing directly with championship teams in the Mavericks and Rangers, it's not going to be enough to miss the playoffs this season and then say "it's ok, it's ok....look, we're building for the future!"
Fans see a new owner and they want change, they want improvement. While, for the most part, we're going to have to stay patient on many of of the changes fans want to see there's a good chance the Stars will at least be able to be somewhat aggressive at the trade deadline in an effort to push for a playoff berth.
The question, of course, is at what cost?
There are many who are wary of the Stars becoming buyers at the trade deadline for fear of losing valuable future assets in an attempt to make the playoffs this season, when the Stars are unlikely to make it out of the first round. Is a quick first round exit worth it to lose a high draft pick, a current player or a future prospect -- and likely a combination of all three? For a team that is comprised mainly of players who won't be on the roster in a few years, it's going to be tough to justify trading away future pieces like that for a short-term cause.
Yet there's another side to the argument. Making the postseason this year is something that all teams in the NHL set out to do. Some teams are already out of the playoff race and can certainly look to next season, but for the Stars and many other teams out there this goal is still very much alive. To give up and to not make a push for the postseason makes little sense, and it sends the wrong message to the fanbase about where the priorities for this season line.
So, making the playoffs is an incredibly important thing to this team and it's very likely this is their goal heading into the trade deadline.
The challenge in front of Joe Nieuwendyk now is to find that trade that helps the team in the short term without sacrificing too much of the future. To accomplish this, Nieuwendyk can use a combination of assets (even future) ones that actually improve this team this season without hurting this team's future. There's a core group of players that is untouchable but other than that -- and perhaps trading a few first round picks -- the Stars should be more than willing to trade for a proven commodity.
After all, that proven commodity is a better risk than the unknown that is a non-elite prospect or high-round draft picks.
Too much of our focus has been on "top six impact players" and big name scoring machines, that franchise player the Stars need. Yet this team also needs just plain scoring depth, someone that can step in and be a top six forward and provide a scoring boost to a team that is struggling in that department.
We're not talking about a 40+ goal scorer or a 70+ point guy; we're talking about perhaps no more than a proven 20-goal scorer who is at least a bigger weapon that what the Stars are currently deploying on the second line. A player like that is someone who would be available at the trade deadline and wouldn't cost so much as to make the trade incredibly risky, and it would allow the Stars to at least improve heading into a very crucial part of the season.
It's a risky endeavor but one that is perhaps better -- for the fanbase at least -- than selling off all of your veterans in a move that waves the white flag on making the playoffs. Especially if trading those veterans gets you nothing in return except draft picks and/or prospects, since neither will be something to improve the team for this season.
Somewhere in there is a hybrid of the two approaches, being a combination of trading some veteran players while also acquiring a player or two to help improve the team for this season. The big blockbuster trade that many fans would love to see will never happen and will never be worth it, especially since this is a team that is far from just being "one player away."
The Stars have a tough task ahead of them this month with some tough decisions to be made. Making the playoffs has been the goal all season long, Tom Gaglardi has made it known. Now we'll see just how committed they are to such an endeavor and how risky they are willing to be in order to accomplish this goal.