Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill made a bold decision on Wednesday, surprising nearly everyone by flipping goaltender Dan Ellis in exchange for Tim Thomas of the Florida Panthers. This a day after the Stars traded defenseman Stephane Robidas to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a conditional fourth-round draft pick, in what was clearly a move to benefit the player and not much else.
That's all the Stars did. Vern Fiddler and Ray Whitney remain with the team, and will continue to be part of a push for the playoffs after what was a very clear sign of faith shown in the current makeup of the team.
Before we get to Tim Thomas however, let's discuss the moves the Stars didn't make.
Heading into the trade deadline, the general consensus around the league was that prices at the deadline were not going to be as high as might have been expected and that not every player "available" would actually be on the move. After a flurry of activity on Tuesday and Wednesday, that certainly appeared to be the case when the dust settled and the deadline finally passed -- some of the returns in these trades were unexpectedly low.
Marcel Goc fetched a 5th rounder and a 3rd, but in 2015.
Thomas Vanek (along with a 4th) was worth just Sebastian Collberg and a conditional 2nd.
Nick Schultz was worth a 5th rounder. Tuomo Ruutu was worth Andrei Loktionov and a 3rd rounder -- in 2017.
Ales Hemsky was worth a 5th and a 3rd -- in 2015.
David Rundblad fetched a second rounder, but that was with Matheiu Brisebois thrown in.
Dustin Penner was worth a 4th rounder.
And so on and so forth.
So, the market for pending unrestricted free agents such as Whitney and Fiddler -- who have been stuck on the third and fourth line for most of the season on a not-all-that-deep team -- just wasn't worth what would have made Jim Nill pull the trigger on a trade. For one, you can't make other teams take these players on; if they're so bad they need to be jettisoned immediately, how can you justify other teams actually giving up value to acquire them?
In the end, a likely 5th or 6th rounder wasn't enough for Nill to trade away players that could -- in theory -- aide in a fight for the playoffs. Nill has the big picture in mind, but he's also not a magician that can make trades happen out of nowhere.
Which is what was interesting about the one "big" move he did make, in flipping Dan Ellis for Tim Thomas and completely changing the goaltending landscape of the Dallas Stars both in the short- and in the long-term.
The Stars signed Ellis this past summer in an attempt to solidify the backup goaltender position, which has suffered significantly in Dallas ever since Mike Smith was traded in 2008. It was hoped that Ellis could keep the Stars from leaning too heavily on Kari Lehtonen but once again the backup struggled when called upon, and the Stars brass lost faith and turned to Ellis sparingly.
Tuesday's loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, an important game in the playoff race, featured a sub-par effort from the team but also some wholly uninspiring goaltending. The game also came on the even of Roberto Luongo being shipped to Florida, creating a bit of a situation with incumbent starter Tim Thomas. The combination of another poor performance in net, along with the sudden availability of Thomas, appears to have ushered in a quick change for the Stars at a position that will be very important the remainder of the season.
"[Thomas] was a guy we attempted to sign in the summer," Jim Nill said on Wednesday afternoon. "You prepare for the deadline all season and this is an example of things can change quickly. When Luongo was traded it opened up the position there in Florida and we stepped in. It was important for us to solidify that position, with the condensed schedule coming up with several back to backs, we thought it was important to address the goaltending position moving forward."
Both Nill and coach Lindy Ruff discussed how Thomas is expected to help the Stars on and off the ice, and in particular is expected to have a major influence on Kari Lehtonen. Thomas is a former Vezina winner and a Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner and despite any off-the-ice distractions of the past few years, is undoubtedly one hell of a fierce competitor when the stakes are at their highest.
Lehtonen, along with the Stars, has faded in March and April when the Stars had the chance to secure their own spot in the postseason. It's clear that Ruff expects Thomas to provide a veteran presence behind Lehtonen, a player who could also -- in theory -- push Lehtonen when the the pressure begins to rise and be able to step in and play in some big games down the stretch to the postseason.
"Really, handling it on a game to game basis based on the schedule," said Ruff, when asked about how much Thomas will play. "At the same time, I want to give Tim the opportunity to play. If he plays well, I'll give him the chance to play."
The Stars are facing a number of back-to-backs in the final 20 games of the season, in a condensed schedule that will push the team to it's limit thanks to the Olympic break. The Stars have control of their playoff destiny but the schedule ahead is far from an easy one; while no one is expecting a Stanley Cup, it's also very clear that the Stars have their sights set squarely on the postseason.
"I think the mental stress, because of the condensed schedule, can be a bit of a burden on Kari," continued Ruff. "And I think Tim can help him out."
There was initially some consternation about Thomas apparently not being happy with the trade, and whether Thomas would accept a backup role after apparently being unhappy with such an arrangement in Boston and Florida. The veteran netminder had to waive his NTC to come to Dallas, however, and Nill made it clear that Thomas was happy to come to a team that in a fight for the postseason and will undoubtedly depend on him in big games down the stretch.
In the short term, the move certainly makes sense. While the move says the Stars are serious about the playoffs, it also didn't go against Nill's stance that he wasn't going to give up assets just to secure a rental for the next 20 games. It's clear the team had lost faith in Ellis, and Thomas provides an impact both on and off the ice.
The 39-year old has not put up the best of numbers in Florida, but has a somewhat respectable .909 save percentage while playing behind an incredibly poor hockey team. After taking a year off, though, it's clear that Thomas isn't exactly the same netminder he was when he left the Boston Bruins; he's not expected to carry the Stars to the playoffs, however -- just don't crumble in the key games when the Stars need the backup to step in and play.
For the long-term, the move has some interesting ramifications. Ellis was under contract through next season; suddenly the Stars don't have a backup beyond this season. Does this open things up for Jack Campbell, who recently returned from a knee injury, to have a shot at the backup spot in the NHL behind Lehtonen in 2014-15? He's only played in handful of games this season, however, but this certainly opens up more possibilities after this season when it previously looked like the Stars might have been stuck with Ellis.
The market wasn't ideal for the Stars to make the "hockey trade" they obviously wanted, but Nill once again made a bold move by jumping on an opportunity to improve the team when it presented itself. It's impossible to know what was available for Whitney or Fiddler and based on the overall chatter around the league, it didn't seem that there was ever all that much interest. Tim Thomas isn't the biggest move made on Wednesday, but it certainly was an eyebrow-raising one.
It wasn't the most exciting deadline for the Stars, and once again we're going to put our hopes on the team to overcome their fringe status in order to end the playoff drought. It probably was always going to be this way, as Jim Nill made it clear that most major changes would likely happen in the summer once again, and we get to see whether a team that has improved in nearly every way over last year can actually improve where it matters -- the final results.