I am a neurotic guy. Suffice to say, a summer of largely unbridled Dallas Stars optimism has left me shaken. On the heels of an encouraging playoff run I’ve seen astute trades and impactful free agent signings. Frankly, I’m having trouble dealing with being excited again, but I read something once, about fear, enter Frank Herbert:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
So rather than dwell, I’m going to share. I’m going to name my four biggest fears for the coming season in hopes that, in so doing; I’ll lessen their hold over me. I’ll also list some things I’m excited about, but that’ll come after the long weekend.
1 – Two Words: Gonchar Extension
Okay, so not exactly. For reasons that should be obvious, the odds of an actual extension are pretty slim. Sergei Gonchar is just a much more entertaining example than Bobby Holik, or Kris Versteeg.
There’s this phenomenon, you see. A great team is built, it wins a little bit, maybe even a lot, and then contracts begin to expire. First, the stars get locked up. No surprise there, but then come deals further down the lineup, often to extremely popular players. In a salary cap league, how a team handles its second and third tier players is very nearly as important as how it handles its superstars.
What happens if Shawn Horcoff has a weird outlier year? What if Erik Cole scores the goal that puts Dallas in the second round? How much do you pay Jason Spezza, and for how long, if he asks to stick around? These are all awesome problems in the short term, but carry severe risks.
Good teams, however much it hurts, find ways to avoid throwing piles of cash at assets outside of their long-term plans. Bad teams fixate. They pay for once-in-a-lifetime playoff runs, veterans to help this year at the cost of next; they overrate truculence, or whatever nonsense intangibles the Brian Burkes of the world are chasing after these days.
This hasn’t been a problem yet. So far the Jim Nill Stars have handled themselves brilliantly. Beloved Pit Bulls Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt count a combined $3.8 million against this season’s cap, a figure that won’t change until Garbutt’s agreement expires in 2017. The same year, cue ominous overtones, Jamie Benn will need new paper. Unless something crazy happens, they’ll ink similarly reasonable deals with outstanding RFAs Brenden Dillon and Cody Eakin. They’ll buy time.
My fear is that Dallas takes another step forward this season, and in the wake of that step, abandons the pragmatism that has so far been a hallmark of their resurgence. My nightmare scenario is Dallas, after pushing a Cup-bound contender to the second round brink, overreaches on a bunch of retreads to get themselves over the hump. Think Alexander Semin, Dave Bolland, or David Clarkson. Hell, think about the Jason Arnott deal.
2 – Assumptive planning
For as much as I’m worried the Stars sign someone foolish, I’m equally concerned they stay out of the market altogether. Funny how fear works, right? My second fear is that team planners assume an up/right angle on everyone’s performance curve, and take no outside steps to improve.
The need for a top pairing defender? Why, that’s going to be Dillon, of course, and don’t you remember how well Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley played down the stretch? They’ll be that good permanently now, I promise. Secondary scoring? Ales Hemsky and Spezza are here, and they’re going to be healthy from here on out. Even if they aren’t, Colton Sceviour seized his opportunity last season, plus, how many goals do you really need with Eakin and the Gang hanging around?
Before you scoff too much, there’s a precedent here. How many years did Dallas stretch Stephane Robidas into a first-pairing defenseman? I say this as someone with an unabashed love of all things Robi, but he wasn’t, and it hurt the team.
Good teams balance pragmatism with aggression, another thing Nill has done well so far. Just ask the Boston Bruins, or Tyler Seguin. The Stars are still a few pieces away from being the next great Stanley Cup contender. They’ll need to rely on more than development to find those pieces.
3 – Not Kari Lehtonen
Sticking with personnel, how about the cold sweats I get whenever anybody other than Kari Lehtonen steps in between the pipes? Mike Smith left town in 2008, ever since, Dallas has struggled to find competency at the position. It’s led to Kari being overplayed, and undercut seasons when injuries struck.
Maybe Anders Lindback is finally the answer, or Jussi Rynnas. It’s possible Jack Campbell, after a sustained run of good health, could be the guy. The only certainty is that Dallas will need 20-30 quality starts from someone else, bottom line, or it’s going to be another nerve-wracking stumble to the finish line.
4 – Life in the Central Division
Maybe backup goaltending wouldn’t be as critical in a friendlier conference, but unfortunately, Dallas is subjected to the brutality of the NHL’s Central Division. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, the Minnesota Wild are firmly entrenched in the next tier down, and even if the regression monster strikes, the Colorado Avalanche are going to be a tough out. Finally, Nashville attains "plucky" status thanks to stout goaltending, all-world Shea Weber, and plenty of promise throughout their lineup (note: Winnipeg was omitted intentionally. As neurotic as I am, I still could not bring myself to be worried about the Jets).
Thanks to realignment, Dallas not only has to contend disproportionately with this group during the regular season, but more than likely during the playoffs as well. Unless they wind up a wild card, in which case it’s an equally potent squad from the Pacific. It’s impossible to root for Dallas and not be afraid, somewhat, of the path they’ll have to take to glory.
More than anything, I worry about the impact those things might have on my beloved Stars, but that’s okay. Without struggle, there can be no progress, or some such nonsense. The important thing is I’ve named my fears, now it’s up to Benn and Co to blast them to smithereens.