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NHL Lockout & Compliance Buyouts: The Dallas Stars Final Rebuilding Pieces

The NHL is reportedly going to allow NHL clubs two Compliance Buyouts after a potential shortened 2012-13 season. This gives the Stars a chance to speed up the rebuilding process significantly.

Bruce Bennett

It should be noted that Compliance Buyouts aren't aimed at teams like the Dallas Stars. The Stars have plenty of cap space under the old system, a deep farm system full of solid, but unspectacular, prospects, and several young key players with which to build. They don't particularly need to use the buyouts. However, not needing to doesn't mean they can't use the buyouts to their advantage. The Stars will have the opportunity to create a significant amount of cap space that they will definitely need down the line and compile more rebuilding assets.

The Stars can take two routes with their buyouts. They can buy out a player from their roster and/or trade for another team's bad contract then buy said player out.

The current roster has very few possible buyout candidates. The names bandied about across the league are generally old and/or under performing relative to their contract terms. The Stars don't really have any of these guys. Brenden Morrow, Jaromir Jagr, and Ray Whitney are names that have been thrown around some this offseason. Morrow and Jagr are on one year deals so the point is moot on both. Ray Whitney may be a viable candidate if his game slips over a shortened season, but probably not. He will still be on a one year deal next year so the chances remain slim.

The longest contracts the Stars control are those of Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, and Trevor Daley. Eriksson is obviously not going anywhere. A case could be made for either Daley or Goligoski, but both cases would be fairly weak. The Stars defensive corps is still thin, both players are young, and neither are particularly overpaid.

We're left with Kari Lehtonen. The idea of buying Lehtonen out seems somewhat crazy. The Stars recently signed him to an extension that covers the next five years at a cap hit of almost six million per year. It's the Stars largest contract, and it was handed out to a player currently manning the deepest position in the organization; a position the Stars identified as an area where they wanted depth. Depth helps in the case of injury, but depth also allows an organization to not be tied to any one player. If they choose, the Compliance Buyouts give the Stars the opportunity to use their depth more efficiently.

The Stars believe in Jack Campbell long term. They have Richard Bachman at the NHL level and Christopher Nilstorp at the AHL level. It would be disingenuous to suggest that either goalie, given 60 starts, would have a .921 save percentage in the NHL next season. They do have solid bodies of work at this point though. Bachman, in particular, looks to at least be a competent NHL netminder.

Neither Bachman or Nilstorp have a large body of NHL work. Nilstorp has no NHL experience. Bachman has 19 games. Bachman does have a full season in the AHL under his belt though. In 78 games he has a career AHL save percentage of .920. He was also very good in his two years in the WCHA with Colorado College. Goalies are hard to project, but Bachman developing into a starting NHL netminder wouldn't be the most shocking thing to ever happen.

Assume Lehtonen has his standard season with a .915 save percentage, but in 60 games. Also assume that Bachman had a .905 save percentage in 60 games (mediocre). If, in those 60 games, each goalie faced 1600 shots total the difference between the two is one goal every four games. It isn't insignificant, but it probably isn't worth the premium price the Stars have promised to pay when they could probably get Bachman for 18 million over the same time period.

The chances of the Stars actually releasing Lehtonen are incredibly slim, but that doesn't preclude them from using a buyout or two. The other area where you might see the Stars pursue a Compliance Buyout is via the trade market. The stumbling block for any team hoping to use a Compliance Buyout is that they would still need to pay the value of the contract. If they were to trade the player to a team willing to buy him out (or keep him) they could save a good deal of money depending on the size of the player's contract. The key is that they would have to entice the team taking the bad contract with prospects and picks to make a deal happen.

Does a team like Minnesota want to move Dany Heatley or Devin Setoguchi without buying them out? Can the Rangers afford to have Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash, and Henrik Lundqvist taking up 45 to 50% of their cap in 2013/14? Tampa Bay is spending 50 million dollars on ten players. That won't be sustainable. We could play this game with every team in the NHL except the Stars and a couple of others. If they're willing to absorb some ugly money the Stars could find themselves being a mover and shaker next off season.

The combination of cap space and assets the Stars could acquire by utilizing the Compliance Buyouts would help the overall strength of the organization, The lower cap is going to make cost controlled players even more valuable. Acquiring picks and prospects in return for swallowing the poor contracts signed by other organizations would allow the Stars more money to use to go into the free agent market to fill the roster holes that the current stable of prospects will not be able to fill. Buying out Lehtonen would afford them even more money to throw at those holes without damaging the franchise significantly.

(It's worth pointing out that the Stars could conceivably trade Lehtonen instead of eating a 30 million dollar contract. Theoretically, yes they could. However he doesn't have a large track record of being "that guy", and anyone following the Roberto Luongo saga has seen how difficult moving a large contract handed out to a goalie can be.)

The limit to what the Stars can do with their Compliance Buyouts is only limited by their imagination and the checkbook of Tom Gaglardi. The organization showed it was willing to take bold steps this past off season with their flurry of moves. They could make a further splash by taking on some poor contracts to pick up assets or buying out Lehtonen. If they're willing to continue to be creative and Gaglardi is willing to pay the freight (really though, who would blame him if he isn't?) then the Stars are in prime position to push the rebuild closer to it's conclusion.