It's December, and the Dallas Stars are in first.
Not first "in their division" or "among teams who spend over $10 million on goalies," but just "first." It's the nicest of places to be, even if you might be worried because the Stars have been fattened up on a steady diet of teams outside the best division in hockey. The Stars have only lost seven games to date, and the only not-horrible teams to best them are Ottawa and Florida. To put it another way, five of their seven losses have come to teams in the bottom five spots in the entire NHL (as of Tuesday morning). We'll call that a fluke for now, partly because it must be (I mean, the Leafs?!) and partly because the thought of its not being a fluke is far too abhorrent to entertain. Turn that scary thought off like a light switch, friends!
None of us expected the Stars to be leading the entire NHL at this point, but there is one thing we (I) did anticipate that hasn't happened yet: The Stars' trading away a defenseman. Before the season began, such a move seemed inevitable. I even went so far as to repeatedly say that given the Stars' schedule, they would surely make a move by Thanksgiving. Eight defensemen on the roster is a lot of them, especially when you dress 12 forwards every night. So when you considered that the three most likely players to be scratched were all under 25, the idea of press-boxing two of them with regularity seemed like the furthest thing from a tenable situation.
Cut to today, and the situation is...well, it's still there, but everyone's sort of okay with it for now, I guess? Patrik Nemeth has been vocal about his fear of how not playing will affect his development, and surely Jamie Oleksiak has expressed a desire to get minutes. (Jyrki Jokipakka, if we're to believe Jason Demers, has not expressed anything, ever.) Still, these are younger players without much leverage, and the team is winning. If the Stars have been willing to ride this far in an overstuffed train car, who's to say they won't hang on until the trade deadline or beyond?
Well, me. I am to say. And I say that, while my initial prediction may have been differently correct than I anticipated in that it did not so much "happen at all," there are four factors that contributed to this fun little surprise of an outcome. As those factors change, so too shall the Stars' willingness to carry eight defensemen wane, fade, and finally collapse in an out-of-nowhere trade announcement from Jim Nill.
Four Reasons the Stars Haven't Traded a Defenseman
1) Jason Demers
Specifically, the five games Jason Demers has missed so far. Demers's upper and lower bodies have each asked for a bit of a siesta this year at different times, and he was generously invited to sit a couple games thanks to the Wheel of Justice as well. Those missed games (along with Jordie Benn's flu-based absence) allowed for the Stars to give the kids at least a handful of games in succession to reacquaint themselves with the basic rules of hockey.
In a way, it's remarkable that it took as long as it did for a defenseman to go down. The Stars' defense corps is good, but it's not huge, and conventional wisdom says that a smaller group of guys is going to take some punishment over the course of a season. Whether Dallas has just had the puck so much more than the opposition that the defense hasn't had to absorb many hits or whether they've just employed the simple expedient of turning over the puck well before the team has to bother forechecking at all, that hasn't really been a problem so far. So when someone did go down, it at least offered Oleksiak and (to a lesser extent) Nemeth a bit of an audition.
It's not unreasonable to expect more absences as the season progresses. Size aside, hockey is violent, and defenders all get massaged by forecheckers and the boards at various points. The Stars have a pretty slick group of skaters in front of the Finns, but things happen over the course of a year. My guess is that the healthier the Stars stay on the back end, the more likely they will be to move one of the kids.
I cashed in a life insurance policy to help pay off my college debt once it became clear that such insurance was unlikely to be more immediately useful than the benefits of debt reduction. The Stars may likewise decide that they can, at some point, afford to trade in a backup blueliner for some more immediately usable assets now.
2) Jim Nill Has Not Gotten a Good Enough Offer
This is more basic and less knowable (by us). Patience has been engraved on every piece of Jim Nill's office bric-a-brac since day one, so it's not a stretch to suggest that he's simply waiting to pull the trigger until he gets what he wants. Is he waiting for San Jose to get a head start on choking and shop Brent Burns? Is he planning to grab Eric Staal and flip him to Detroit for two more Mattiases? It's all trade speculation, but speculating is really all there is when it comes to moves that haven't been made.
I had thought that the trade value of the younger defensemen would be greatly reliant upon another middling-to-rebuilding club's being able to grab them earlier in the year and play them throughout their season. Clearly Arizona and Ottawa ruined everything by not immediately collapsing, so I am going to blame them for the obviously broken trade market that hasn't created the demand Jim Nill needs to make a move.
3) Scratches Apparently Don't Depreciate the Value of Young Players
The easy retort here is that 3) is both false and the reason for 2), but again, we can't know that unless we're tapping the GM phone lines, and "Haha, whatever could you be talking about?" The Stars are far from the only team with younger players ostensibly rotting in the press box, so there does seem to be a league-wide understanding of the issues inherent with the waiver rules. Lots of teams are surely lurking around the waiver wire like seedy bookies at a dog racetrack, just waiting to pounce on the free players as soon as they become available. Healthy scratches are far from the unquestionable scarlet letter they were in a pre-cap world.
Even so, the Stars have been very vocal about the downsides of missing most of a season. Nemeth is on pace to play fewer games than he did last year after getting his arm cut by a skate. Oleksiak is only halfway to his lockout-shortened 2013 season total. Jyrki Jokipakka has been the most trusted of the three, but he's also the oldest, and a seventh-round pick to boot. How much can the Stars count on his development this year being worth more than seeing a consistent body of work from Oleksiak or Nemeth?
The Stars have so far been fine with scratching people for long stretches at a time; just ask Travis Moen. But surely there will come a point at which the Stars will decide who's going to be worth keeping around next year, and that decision will have to be followed by flipping the players left in the metaphorical mush pot for something the Stars can use. I'm sure it's nice having players who know all the press box minutiae and etiquette, but a team can only have so many $800K docents on their payroll.
4) Winning Fixes Everything
It's not absolutely true, but it sure covers up most of the leaks in the pipe. As long as the Stars are sitting atop their conference (and league!), Jim Nill can pretty much respond to every text asking about a trade with cute animal memes and this hyperlink. You're always looking to improve your team, but the "good enough" in point 2 has an (unknown) value, but one with a direct relationship to the Stars' place in the Central Division. Immediate improvements are more sought-after when playoff seeding is at stake.
Just as you will see Lindy Ruff start the line blender when the Stars stumble on the ice, so will Jim Nill start using his outgoing call minutes if the team's margin in the standings starts to shrink or even disappear. But if it doesn't, if the Stars are still comfortably ahead of the pack after another 27 games? That's when you start to have conversations about how Nemeth's playing 20 games the entire season might just be the price you pay for keeping the band together that year. It's not fair to Nemeth in one sense, but that's the nature of being a younger player on a great team making a push: your development can't always come first.
The Stars have preached the value of internal competition for years. From the crease to the depths of the lines and defense pairs, the message has consistently been that players need to earn their ice time if they want to get and keep it. The Stars have been winning the external competition against 29 other teams for the first third of the season, and some young defensemen have been watching a lot of those contests from way above the ice. For the kids to start winning their competitions a bit more frequently, the Stars might, perversely, have to start losing more of theirs.