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2012 NHL Free Agency: Dallas Stars Willing & Able To Spend To Address Team Needs

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From the very moment that Tom Gaglardi was officially announced as the new owner of the Dallas Stars the big question has been "how much is he going to be willing to spend on the roster?" For the past few seasons the Dallas Stars have had one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL, forced to cut back on spending when Tom Hicks found financial trouble between his three sports franchises.

Hicks famously said a few years ago that freely spending on hockey in Texas was a losing model and whoever was going to become the new owner would learn this right away. What was interesting was the Stars had been a high-spending team through the 1990s and into the 2000s; it wasn't until Hicks Sports Group entered into financial trouble that freely-spending became an issue.

It was known that whoever did come in to own the team would be facing a significant financial loss almost immediately, and likely through the first few years as the franchise fought to get back on track. It was estimated that the Stars were looking at a $30 million loss for the 2011-12 season and likely that same figure exists for the 2012-13 season as well. This was one of the reasons that Chuck Greenberg passed on making a bid on the team in bankruptcy court.

This is why fans were skeptical about what Gaglardi would be willing to spend, especially considering the Stars needs. When Gaglardi purchased the Stars he told the local media that he makes his money elsewhere and that he bought the Stars to win, intimating that he's not going to be as frugal as many fans feared. Now that the Stars are gearing up for the first big free agency period in a few years for the team, those questions are being raised again: just how much are the Stars willing and able to spend?

"We are kind of without budget," says Dallas Stars CEO & President Jim Lites. "As crazy as that sounds. We're restricted really only by the CBA and the need to fit short and long term inside that structure, which is a little bit up in the air."

This can't be true. Let's take a closer look at Lites' and Gaglardi's comments from last week about the budget for this summer and more importantly -- what they feel are the needs of the team moving forward.

Tom Gaglardi was in town last week to meet with the front office and discuss the strategy of the team moving forward and while he was in town, he and Jim Lites took to the airwaves in separate interviews to let fans know that the Dallas Stars are going to be aggressive in attempting to improve the team. Aggressive, yet smart.

"[Gaglardi] is prepared to spend what we need to spend, but it's got to be spent wisely in anticipation of changes to the system," Lites told Norm Hitzges on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket last week.

The CBA is going to be interesting factor in all this, as the Stars are in perfect position to take advantage of teams facing cap uncertainty moving forward. The Stars, while also willing to spend as needed, will have to be careful to not overspend and to maintain their ability to remain flexible under the salary cap -- whatever that figure may be next season.

The talk about being able to spend led to discussion about what the specific needs of the team are and it's very clear that everyone is on the same page: the Stars need two top six forwards and a top pairing defenseman.

"I'll tell you the perception of our team is that we feel we need two top-six forwards," said Lites. "We need two top-six forwards. We need to add two in our current set, or create them from the minor league system. We have candidates for that but it's a little early... you cannot assume that you're going to get there with the people that we have that our now coming into the system."

The Stars were obviously lacking in overall top-end talent last season and it showed as the season progressed. Despite an incredible run across February and March that put the Stars into first place in the division for an extended period of time, the Stars stumbled down the stretch as more-talented and better balanced teams overwhelmed them when the games mattered most.

This lack of talent also showed up on the power play, one of the worst the NHL has ever seen. The Stars came close to doing the unexpected with a roster that was severely lacking in several areas, and the inability to put a truly balanced roster on the ice is what ultimately hurt the Stars the most. At times this season the Stars had Tom Wandell, Adam Burish, Tomas Vincour, Eric Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler all playing significant minutes on the top two lines and Steve Ott spent most of the season as a top-six forward.

"We like the way our bottom six forwards look out of what we have and what we can put together," said Lites. "It might mean taking a player or two that played up in the top six down. Steve Ott, for instance, that kind of player, and better define his role - and keep working it."

It was apparent that the Stars lacked depth and balance and taking players out of their comfort zone hurt the team. It's interesting to see Lites bring up Ott, as he has been the focus of most of the conversations regarding players that should be in a different role next season. Ott actually had a career year in 2011-12 but it's apparent his strengths are best utilized in a checking/third line role -- being able to move Ott down would allow for better balance across all four lines.

There's also the issue of centers and the severe lack of depth at the position, not just at the NHL level but throughout the system as a whole. The Stars are playing Jamie Benn at center when ideally he'd be an offensive powerhouse from the wing. The issue of the center position came up, with Gaglardi saying that the draft is where the Stars need to address this particular need.

"There's not enough good centers for the league," Gaglardi told BAD Radio on The Ticket. "In Dallas we'd like to get deeper in that regard. That's something that yesterday I let my feelings be known to our staff that I would like to pursue some centers in the draft. They're tough to get. The good centers go early. I think at 13 we're going to have a shot to get ourselves an excellent center, but at the same time too, if there's an excellent defenseman, we've got our eyes on a couple of guys, if they slide to 13.... I think our focus this year is going to be a center or a great high end defenseman."

Obviously, the decision to grab a defensman or center is going to be an interesting one -- especially considering how big of a need the center position is. Lites and Gaglardi, however, made a big deal out of the need to address the defensive side as well.

"We think we need to add two top-six defensemen and we probably need, in a perfect world you need a number one defenseman," said Lites. "I think that's pretty fair to say. So we need three high end pieces to make ourselves true Stanley Cup Champions."

Gaglardi would echo that sentiment.

"There's 30 teams in the league," said the Stars owner. "Maybe 15 have that number one defenseman. So they're hard to come by. Unless you're drafting in that top three or four you can't find those guys. So you've got free agency, you've got trades - Well those guys never get traded."

"We don't have that player in Dallas right now," Gaglardi continued. "We don't have the Zubov. We've never really replaced that guy. It would be great to have that guy. At 13 I don't know that we're going to get that guy."

What's interesting about these statements is how the Stars have focused so heavily on defense the last two drafts, with Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak both representing intriguing options as possible future top-pairing defensemen for the Stars. The Stars selected Oleksiak at #14 last summer and while he's developed into one of the top defensemen in the OHL, he still has to make the jump to the AHL this next season and isn't expected to push for the NHL until 2013.

Oleksiak and Nemeth are both defensive-minded players as well, with Oleksiak just recently starting to show his offensive potential. The Stars desperately need, like so many other teams, that high-scoring top defenseman that teams so highly covet. It's unlikely the Stars can find that player at #13 this summer, as Gaglardi points out -- does he feel the Stars already possess that player in the system?

"Do we have a guy in Oleksiak that can do that? If he turns into a Chara type player, then probably," said Gaglardi. "He's within a half-inch of Chara in height now and I think his stick is an inch longer. He's gotta add the meanness that Chara brings, but that's an interesting guy."

Oleksiak has a long ways to go before he's Zdeno Chara and the Stars know that. The Stars also know that getting that big defensemen in the middle of the first round is possible, but that the truly special players are in the top of the first round.

So that leaves free agency and possibly trades. Going after those types of players can become exceptionally expensive but the Stars appear ready to make that commitment -- if it's done smartly.

The Stars appear prepared to explore any and all options. For Dallas Stars fans, that's all anyone has really wanted the past four years, anyway.