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Dallas Stars Free Agency & Ray Whitney: Seeing The Forest For The Trees

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On day one of free agency the Dallas Stars handed out a two year deal for a total of 9 million dollars to 40 year old Ray Whitney. They irresponsibly tied up a roster spot and minutes which would otherwise have gone to a deserving prospect after camp in a player who has no long term future with the club. The Stars had the opportunity to pursue younger fits, but willingly chose to go the opposite direction. Or, in some cases, they chose to do nothing because they don't know what they're doing.

I could probably go on writing other defeatist doomsday comments for the next hour, but you're likely as interested in reading that as I am in writing it. Yes, the Stars signed Ray Whitney on day one of free agency. It's undeniable that Whitney is a short term fix. But I think, in general, most observers are missing the point.

The Stars traded Mike Ribeiro a week ago and the world was over. I didn't think they got appreciably worse, but the main argument presented suggesting that they did revolved around the Stars inability to replace Ribeiro's production. The Ray Whitney signing easily replaces whatever other production they needed to cover after Ribeiro's departure, and they will still be adding a center. After the jump we'll look closer at the ramifications of the deal, and come to the conclusion that all of this anxiety is a waste of energy.

My initial reaction to the contract was laughter. The 4.5 million dollars cap hit wasn't too surprising. The two guaranteed years is longer than most would want to commit to a 40 year old. My initial reaction was in response to the Stars apparent change in philosophy, or, at least, my naivete about the situation. Neither Zach Parise or Ryan Suter ever seemed like realistic Stars targets to me, but I still thought the younger second tier group of free agents would be interested in joining the Stars. That apparently hasn't been the case so far, and will probably continue to be the reality of the situation. The Stars aren't an attractive free agent landing spot.

Ray Whitney himself probably put it best when describing why he signed here. The Stars were the only team willing to go two years on the contract. They had to if they wanted to entice him to come here. So, sure they paid a premium with the extra year. They can afford to though. The extra year isn't going to hurt them given where they are as a club. Plus they paid a premium for a player who has put together a pretty solid career.

Season Age Tm GP G A PTS PIM S S% ATOI
1991-92 19 SJS 2 0 3 3 0 4 0
1992-93 20 SJS 26 4 6 10 4 24 16.7
1993-94 21 SJS 61 14 26 40 14 82 17.1
1994-95 22 SJS 39 13 12 25 14 67 19.4
1995-96 23 SJS 60 17 24 41 16 106 16
1996-97 24 SJS 12 0 2 2 4 24 0
1997-98 25 EDM/FLA 77 33 32 65 28 175 18.9
1998-99 26 FLA 81 26 38 64 18 193 13.5 18:20
1999-00 27 FLA 81 29 42 71 35 198 14.6 18:41
2000-01 28 FLA/CBJ 46 10 24 34 30 120 8.3 17:51
2001-02 29 CBJ 67 21 40 61 12 210 10 20:13
2002-03 30 CBJ 81 24 52 76 22 235 10.2 21:00
2003-04 31 DET 67 14 29 43 22 119 11.8 16:24
2005-06 33 CAR 63 17 38 55 42 147 11.6 17:11
2006-07 34 CAR 81 32 51 83 46 215 14.9 18:42
2007-08 35 CAR 66 25 36 61 30 204 12.3 18:56
2008-09 36 CAR 82 24 53 77 32 219 11 18:25
2009-10 37 CAR 80 21 37 58 26 171 12.3 19:09
2010-11 38 PHX 75 17 40 57 24 156 10.9 16:57
2011-12 39 PHX 82 24 53 77 28 185 13 18:39
Career 1229 365 638 1003 447 2854 12.8 18:33

In 1229 career games Whitney has 1003 points. He's 7th among active players in points, and 79th in NHL history. When all is said and done he's going to be a borderline hall of famer in the Pat Verbeek group of "good, but not good enough" candidates. He could get in, but it's unlikely.

Whitney as a replacement for Ribeiro makes a lot of sense. McKeen's Hockey (via Jonathan Willis' write up of the move at NHLNumbers) describes Whitney's game in the following way:

[U]ndersized, finesse winger with tremendous poise and playmaking vision .. remains a wily puckhandler equipped with a keen sense of danger and a tricky shot, even if age has tempered the blistering north-south burst .. strong and shifty in possession .. knows how to create space for himself, aided by superb in-tight puck control .. can be a liability when not scoring however as he becomes static and uninvolved both physically and defensively…

If you had to describe Mike Ribeiro's game this description probably isn't too far away from what you would ultimately settle on as a reasonable profile. The defensive issue is troubling, but as usual lately I'm reminded of the words of Dave Tippett that I quoted in April:

"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

How does this apply to the Stars, Mike Ribeiro, and Ray Whitney?

Name QoC OZ% Corsi Rel
Ribeiro 0.59 53.70% -4.4
Whitney 1.131 54.20% 12.7

The Coyotes tried to keep their prime offensive option in the offensive zone with good reason. Whitney was used against some of the more difficult competition in the league while Ribeiro saw easier matchups. Whitney did what he was supposed to do with those minutes. He led the Coyotes in Corsi relative to his teammates. Ribeiro, as you can see, was the polar opposite.

Whitney also produced more at even strength than Ribeiro last year. Below is the even strength points per 60 minutes leaderboard from last season:

Name P/60
Malkin 3.86
Eberle 3.08
Stamkos 2.88
Benn 2.88
Spezza 2.82
Whitney 2.82
Dupuis 2.76
Giroux 2.73
Sharp 2.69
Seguin 2.69

The old man can play. The chances of him scoring 70 points next year are slim. 60 points is probably a stretch too. Only nine players in NHL history have scored 60 or more points in a season after age 40. Given his possession abilities he should prove to be valuable to the Stars even if he drops into the 40-50 point range which isn't out of the question. He's 40 after all.

Whitney gives the Stars some lineup options. He could flank Jamie Benn to add some playmaking punch to his line. They could use him on the second line to open up the second attack wave they so desperately needed last season. They can trust him to play against the top opposition competition too which goes along with the apparent goal of not having to protect their top six forwards.

I understand the frustration. On the heels of the Ribeiro trade this move looks strange. That moved seemed to signal some type of rebuilding plan as the Stars goal. They've never indicated that they want to tear things down though. This move shows that as clear as day. Whitney is a big improvement over Ribeiro, and anyone who was concerned that the Stars wouldn't replace his production can rest assured now. They have, and then some.

The Stars are trying to ice a competitive team for 2013 while integrating as many talented young players as they can. It might not work, but as of this writing they're a better team than they were before the draft. They have upside. They have more ability to push the puck up the ice. Things are looking up. All you have to do to see it is to step back from the ledge.