It's late January and the NHL trade deadline is just 35 days away and the Dallas Stars once again find themselves in an interesting position. As it stands the Dallas Stars are on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in, but are still close enough in the hunt for the postseason to remain a legitimate goal. A lot can change in that time, and the Stars' direction at the deadline will be influenced by how these next 17 games play out.
What makes this trade deadline so particularly intriguing this year is the number of defensemen potentially available that fit the proposed profile of what the Dallas Stars are needing. After spending two summers loading up the forwards (and building one of the top-scoring teams in the process) the Stars now must turn their attention to rounding off a young and somewhat promising defensive group.
Currently, both in the NHL and in the developmental system, the Stars are loaded with a number of defensemen that fit a similar profile. Patrik Nemeth is perhaps the lone exception as the 'big, physical defensive-minded' blueliner, with Jamie Oleksiak as another. The Stars have plenty of solid second and third-pairing defensemen and some good potential as a long-term top pairing player in John Klingberg but the Stars desperately need a proven, minutes-eating defenseman who could instantly help stabilize an inconsistent group.
With the Arizona Coyotes going into formal fire-sale mode, Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle will be discussed in potential trade talks for the next coming weeks with Michalek making the most sense for the Stars of the two. He's a pending UFA, however, and while he would be a good short-term solution there's a question whether at 32-years old he's the long-term solution the Stars might be wanting.
Another team that could be unloading players at the deadline is the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the front office has chosen for a rebuild after firing Randy Carlyle and seeing a core of players that has struggled these past few seasons. Of those potentially on the move are defensemen Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf, two players who would potentially fill the exact needs the Stars have had for the past few seasons on that top pairing.
Both, however, present very different scenarios in any potential trade.
Both defensemen receive heavy defensive-zone starts against the toughest competition of any defensemen on the Leafs -- Phaneuf plays against tougher opponents than any other player on his team. The Leafs as a whole are a poor possession team and have been for the past few years. This season Franson and Phaneuf have struggled a bit while playing those tough minutes but have held up relatively well.
*Note: For the above chart, the darker the blue (positive CorsiRel) the better the relative possession numbers for the player; the darker the orange (negative CorsiRel) the worst.
Franson is the one that sticks out the most, however. He's a big defenseman who can play physical in front of his own net, but has shown the ability to also put up good numbers in the process. Franson has much better possession numbers relative to his teammates than Phaneuf and puts up 1.22 points per 60 minutes, compared to Phanuef's 0.62.
That Franson is just 27 years old, is right-handed and being potentially available via trade is certainly the carrot that Jim Nill has been waiting for. Here is a very viable candidate for that "No. 1 defenseman" position who has proven NHL experience, and who isn't just the minutes-eating behemoth the Stars want but a player who can also move the puck well and produce on the scoreboard. He has good size, has some edge to his game and is the well-rounded top-pairing player the Stars have desperately needed.
The issue, however, is Franson's pending free agent status this summer
weekend. Unless the Stars can lock down a contract extension before the summer comes, this would be nothing more than an expensive rental for a team that could -- or could not be -- in the thick of the playoff race.
On the other side of the long-term coin is Phaneuf, in the middle of the first year of a massive seven-year contract that averages $7 million a season. That's the going rate for a top-pairing defenseman on the open market and close to what Franson could get on the open market (six years/$36 million seems more reasonable), but he's 29-years old and has spent some tough years in a tough market -- and a change of pace to a team like Dallas could have an interesting effect on the veteran player.
He's also a nasty, physical player and could bring a bit more edge to the defense that has been missing since Dillon was traded and Nemeth was injured.
A trade for Phaneuf would be expensive, but the contract could potentially keep the price reasonable. The question is whether this is the player the Stars would want to invest the next six and a half years in and would he be the "defensive" defensman that Dallas has so long needed? Would Franson be the better option, even with the risk of him departing in free agency this summer?
For both players the Leafs are likely wanting a top defensive prospect and picks, and perhaps a young roster player as well. This is the big move that the Stars have been building for and have the assets and cap space to pull off, if necessary -- and for the first time in quite some years the Stars will be at the top of the list of teams not only interested in, but as legitimate candidates, in landing one of the top defensemen on the market.
Franson or Phaneuf? It's going to be a fun ride to see how this plays out, especially since it's clear the Stars are gearing up to make a big move to change the complexion of the blueline -- both this season and beyond. The Stars have almost completely remade the defense from where the season started and it's clear that this is the biggest focus position for Nill and the front office in the coming month.
*Note: We are aware of the rumors floating around regarding potential trades being offered by Dallas. For now, these are just unsubstantiated rumors.