(Hello. This is Part 2 of a three-part feature where I take a look beyond this season and examine how well established the Stars are at different areas for the immediate future. I wrote about the forwards last week, and the piece about the goalies will come next week)
The Dallas Stars have a problem with their defense.
No, I'm not talking about their 27th-ranked goals against per game at 3.26, or their 24th-ranked shots against per game at an even 31. Those problems are already well-documented at this point.
What I'm talking about is the impending roster logjam that the organization will most likely have to address this summer.
The Stars have eight defensemen that are currently penciled in for next year's roster. With none eligible to be sent to the AHL without passing through waivers and four of the group under the age of 25, thus needing lots of ice time, the Stars will soon have some very tough decisions to make.
Here's what the blueline currently projects to look like (salaries included) over the next three years (all numbers courtesy of NHLNumbers.com):
Impending free agents: David Schlemko
Well, that table says it all, doesn't it?
Not only do the Stars have four young defensemen on the roster, but all four need new contracts at the same time. Each player has a promising NHL future ahead of them and deserves a new deal, but for how long and how much money?
Even more interestingly, does one of these players get their next contract as a member of a team that isn't the Stars?
Given the tremendous rookie season that he is currently having, at this point you'd have to think that John Klingberg is firmly entrenched in the team's long-term future plans. He almost certainly won't get a monster deal as his next one, but a notable raise would be hard to argue.
From there it gets tricky, as the other three young defenders all bring something different and appealing to the table.
Jamie Oleksiak has the extremely rare and extremely valuable blend of size and mobility, other current weaknesses to his game notwithstanding. Patrik Nemeth is the most naturalized stay-at-home type of defender, which is a style of play that the current Dallas blueline is painstakingly lacking in. Jyrki Jokipakka if something of a track-of-all-trades that can do everything well but nothing spectacularly, and that sort of versatility always comes in handy over the course of an 82-game season.
As mentioned a few paragraphs above, according to this guide from The Hockey Writers all of these young defenders would have to successfully pass through waivers to go to the AHL, which is not likely to happen (and something that the Stars probably don't want to risk considering what happened with Kevin Connauton). So that option is off the table.
Dallas' main focus is on sustainable long-term success, but one of the reasons why the Stars have struggled to prevent shots and goals against this year is because of the overall inexperience of the blueline. Will they keep all four youngsters and risk going the same route again next year?
For the veterans similar problems exist. Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn all become unrestricted free agents at the end of next season, with Trevor Daley the lone player signed through 2016/2017. Which names from this group does general manager Jim Nill have interest in keeping for a longer period of time?
With regards to trade possibilities there is no clear-cut answer. Goligoski is, overall, the best defenseman on the team right now, so he probably sticks around until his current deal expires, at the very least. Demers is one of only two right-handed shots on the blueline, something that the Stars covet and paid a heavy premium to acquire when they traded away Brenden Dillon. Daley is, by far and away, the longest-tenured Star on the entire team and has a limited no-trade clause, which could complicate any possible deals. Benn has a very manageable cap hit and probably wouldn't fetch much of a return on the trade market.
On the other hand, could the Stars decide to not make any trades, and instead roll with eight defensemen on the roster all season just like they did last year? It's certainly a possibility.
The upside to this approach is that the Stars don't exactly have a ton of immediate depth beyond the aforementioned eight. There are some very impressive young defensemen in the system, but Julius Honka probably needs one more full year in the AHL, while Europeans Esa Lindell and Ludwig Bystrom will be playing their first seasons in North America and might need the entire year in the AHL to properly adjust. All it would take is one serious injury and suddenly the Stars would need every single defenseman that they have.
The downside to not making any trades is that when the entire group is healthy then at least one of the young defensemen would be sitting as a healthy scratch every game, which would both stunt their development and decrease their trade value. In terms of asset management it wouldn't be an ideal scenario for the organization.
With just under half of the season and possibly (hopefully) playoffs still to come, the Stars still have a lot of time left to analyze the players that they have before they need to make any serious decisions. That being said, it's certainly going to be one of the more intriguing situations surrounding the Stars to follow in the coming months.