Less than three weeks remain between the Dallas Stars and free agency, and our little hockey brains are asking all the usual questions. Who will they draft? What are the needs organizationally? Will they sign a big free agent?
How will they fix the defense?
The latter being a perpetual, though ever-changing, consideration. "Stephane Robidas can't be your number-one D on a contender, or even a playoff team" has been the familiar refrain. That will shift now to Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, who did incredible work down the stretch while the group as a whole was ultimately run down by a lack of dependable depth.
So we'll just go shopping and Jim Nill will fix everything, right?
Maybe. What if he can't? Quality defense being what it is in the salary cap world- No one let's anything of real value hit the market. You end up signing Aaron Rome and Sergei Gonchar and Adam Pardy as free agents and you tell yourself that a change of scenery will do people some good.
It rarely does.
Sometimes you make some pretty savvy acquisitions in guys like Brenden Dillon. Sometimes guys bloom a little and surprise you, like Jordie Benn.
It's a see-saw that's really seen them stay where they've been on the back-end. They lack size overall. They have good speed. They have mid-range skill. And everyone laments "if they could just get that one number-one guy..."
"Moving forward, it would be great to have a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman, but there are 25 other teams that want the same thing," Stars GM Jim Nill told media at the conclusion of round one. "That's probably something we'll have to draft and develop. It's hard to find a true No. 1 defenseman."
With Patrik Nemeth's "star" now having risen above Jamie Oleksiak's among the fanbase, media, and possibly team officials as well, you see the difficulty of trying to groom one of those guys. We're high on most prospects- but not for very long.
That big fish isn't likely coming. We know that. So what do they do otherwise? You can go diving for more Romes and Pardys...It seems likely a free agent will be signed, but one of consequence?
More likely the improvement must continue to come from within over the next 24 months if they're to take it to the next level and start looking like a real competitor for the Cup the Kings will lift again later this week.
Mike Heika believes the Stars would like a right-handed defenseman or two to balance things out.
"It's something we need," Jim Nill told him on the subject. "We're lucky that we have Klingberg coming along, but whether he's ready or not for next year, we'll have to find out. But those guys are very valuable, they're hard to find, and that's something we need to add."
If Nill adopts the Red Wings' famous patterns of waiting for prospects to mature- And waiting. And then waiting some more- The guess is that Klingberg will not be "ready" any time in the next two seasons, though there are some in the organization who really, really like him.
(It's in this space I remind myself how many conversations I had about Ivan Vishnevskiy with people in the organization...)
If you've been watching the Calder Cup finals you know what experience Nemeth continues to get, now healthy and confident after a run with the big club this spring. I'd pencil him in. Oleksiak will get his chance, and the question there will be the same it's been: Number-seven guy, potentially, or better to play 25 per-night in the American league?
If you're Lindy Ruff you're at least considering keeping Goligoski and Daley together as they were- hoping that the desperation of spring revealed in them, together, a new level of sustainability. But what of the rest? Do you have to plan to separate them to stabilize what's likely still a young core?
Goligoski and Jordie Benn? Daley and Brenden Dillon? Connauton and a free agent? And then there's Gonchar, probably un-trade-able, who must be accounted for.
It can go so many ways it's dizzying. Trade a veteran for another that's a better fit. Sign another risk or two and roll the dice, again- Or my personal favorite: If it's not a home-run trade or UFA signing, then just go young and deal with it. They say you can mess up young defensemen doing that. They say it happened to Matt Niskanen, only newly rehabilitated in Pittsburgh after years.
But at some point it's time to sink or swim for some of these guys.
This group found its way as the season went on. This team was a very positive possession unit. The pieces may not have sorted themselves out the way Ruff and Nill had envisioned at the outset (Gonchar as power play guru and high minute guy...) but it did sort itself out. The possibility exists that a second year under Ruff for the team as a whole could beget a smoother, more consistent season throughout- And that's going to make this defense look a little better, even if largely unchanged.
When looking at this team as a whole I think it's fair to say that they're two-three years away from being the kind of power they want to be, if things work out as well as they possibly can, and it's at that point you make the bold strikes and say "we're close, we're going for it." As a whole. Might you apply the same philosophy to the defense and just say "Wait. Be patient." Or is it more urgent than all of that?
How much would you risk for a quick fix this off-season on the back-end? Three more weeks and the answers start pouring in...