On July 2nd, the Dallas Stars announced they had come to terms on a new contract with Vernon Fiddler. At 2 years and $2.5 million, it was a tidy little bit of business. Understated, even. Given the (justifiable) hoopla of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky coming to down, one might be forgiven for not giving the deal much thought. Fiddler-to-Dallas simply lacked the sizzle of Jim Nill’s other acquisitions. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the signing as a simple footnote in an otherwise active offseason.
Frankly, I was shocked to see Vern come back. Shocked, but not disappointed. Since he came to town in 2011, #38 has relentlessly found ways to contribute up and down the lineup. He’s a faceoff ace, defensively reliable, and prone to respectable bursts of offense. There is no better summation of his game than the oopsie-daisy-dangle he dropped on poor Pekka Renne last April.
From Dallas’ perspective, the is the very definition of a no-brainer. Think of Vern as a security blanket. For $1 million this year and $1.5 next, the Stars get a guy they can plug in basically anywhere. They get a proven battler, who earned his way free of the AHL/NHL pinball machine in Nashville, found a foothold in Phoenix, and then claimed (and reclaimed) an important role in Dallas. That sort of perseverance (and the 656 NHL games that comes with it), is exactly the sort of example a good organization covets. The relatively modest pricetag, furthermore, preserves his value as a tradable asset should things not go exactly according to plan. Any team in the league (the smart ones at least) would love to have a Vernon Fiddler of their own.
Which is why his decision was so very strange. Vern had to fight for every shift under Lindy Ruff. To fans, that’s an admirable trait, but to a 34 year old hockey player? We know that questions about playing time, and concerns about a diminished role in the lineup were an issue last season. We know as well there was a trade request (a situation both player and team handled marvelously) that faded once the playoff chase went nuclear. It wasn’t a perfect fit.
So you have to wonder (at least I’m telling you to wonder) why a guy worried about playing a meaningful on-ice role, an older player who might not have too many more shots, would lock in for two years on a team that just signed a marquee player at his position, and has a number of up-and-comers on an AHL-Championship team. Especially when there’s a strong market for quality, depth centermen and plenty of NHL teams without Seguin/Spezza/Eakin on their lineup cards.
Maybe the outside suitors he anticipated weren’t there. I suppose I don’t technically know a market exists. I certainly didn’t field any offers, but it seems surprising to think there wouldn’t be someone interested. It could, just as easily, have been the infectious enthusiasm of playing for an up-and-comer. Stars fans are excited, expectations have risen, maybe playing somewhere fun becomes a draw after so many years in the wilderness.
Then there’s management. Now that the Tom Gagliardi era is in full swing, the Dallas Stars enjoy a strong owner, a dynamic GM, and an experienced coach. Even during the chaotic Marc Crawford days the Stars flirted with the playoffs. It is absolutely justifiable to see last season’s breakthrough as a first step. Is it possible Vern was wooed by thoughts of being this team’s version of Mike Keane?
The bottom line? I don’t think Fiddler returns worried about how he’s going to fit in. I also don’t think he returns to play grab-what-you-can fourth line minutes and play off-ice mentor to the squad’s younger members. Add to that Nill’s (so far) deliberate nature, and it’s clear to me there’s both a reason and a role for Mr. Fiddler. There’s a plan.
I expect next season we’ll see Fiddler do "Vern Fiddler" things. He’ll hedge against injuries or growing pains for Eakin’s group, boost the penalty kill, score a little, and win critical faceoffs. One thing is certain, whatever he winds up doing, Stars fans will be lucky to have him around.