The Dallas Stars approach free agency with about $10 million in salary cap space. They have their "backup" goalie in Antti Niemi, and now the Stars turn their focus to the skaters. Free Agency opens tomorrow, if you hadn't heard. Defending Big D is breaking it all down for you.
Do the Stars need a forward or a defenseman? The short answer is both. It is easy to look at the goals against average and scream for defensemen, but the Stars were missing team defense last year. As the Blackhawks have proved over the years, defensively sound forwards can be just as suffocating as a giant defenseman.
If there is one thing that the Stars can learn from perennial contenders, it's that teams must be deep down the middle to succeed in the playoffs. Right now, the Stars skate Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Cody Eakin, and Vernon Fiddler at center. You can play "house" with those guys, and probably even win a playoff series; but an upgrade will be required at center to truly be considered a contender.
Antoine Vermette was rented by the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline. Vermette brings a very specific skillset to the table: he wins draws.
Vermette struggled in Chicago during the regular season. He scored as many goals as I did during his 18 regular season games (zero), and only won 50 percent of his faceoffs. In Chicago, you could be forgiven for asking, "this is our rental?"
Right on cue, when the doubt about the trade had set in the front office and the fan base, Vermette had 2 game winning goals in the playoffs and won 58.7 percent of his draws. Also, the Hawks won the Cup if that matters.
The question for Chicago, Dallas, and any other team needing a two-way center is: which Antoine Vermette will show up after he inks this contract? Will his future employer end up with a poor man's Ryan Kesler, or a poor man's Vernon Fiddler?
Vermette will turn 33 next season coming off of a $3.75 million per year salary. There is wild speculation that his playoff surge will earn him a significant raise on Wednesday, but should it? And more importantly, should the Stars be interested in acquiring his services?
For his career, Vermette is 56.2 percent which is lethal on the dot. To give you an idea, Jason Spezza (the Stars' faceoff ace last year) won 54 percent of his draws last year. While this seems like a nominal skill, winning faceoffs is important. It allows a team to be aggressive on a powerplay or offensive zone draw with confidence their man is going to tee them up.
Vermette is a versatile player, having logged significant minutes on the power play, the penalty kill, and even strength throughout his career. He is traditionally going to get a point every 2 games. Adding him to the Stars' roster would allow players to slide up or down the lineup to a role that better suits them.
Vermette would push Cody Eakin to either move to a wing or down to the 4th line center (currently occupied by Vernon Fiddler). Vermette is not going to put up flashy numbers, but he is a savant on the dot and his versatility helps the Stars. But does the good outweigh...
In 834 career regular season games, Vermette has a CF% of 49.4. In other words, he is a negative possession player for his career. While this is a haunting stat, there are some mitigating factors. Until he played 18 regular season games in Chicago, Vermette's list of clubs goes like this: Ottawa (when he was 21 and 22), Columbus, and Phoenix/Arizona/Las Vegas. Corsi Relative and other possession statistics attempt to adjust for the quality of teammates and competition, but those were some really bad teams.
If you are wearing Vermette-tinted glasses, you might argue his career has "plateaued". Less kind observers might use the word "decline". At one time, Vermette was a smooth and serviceable skater but at times during the playoffs he looked a step slow. Despite his alleged reputation as a two-way center, his career shows a declining dZS%. Receiving sheltered minutes and posting negative possession stats is not a good reputation for a third line center.
Vermette will likely seek a 3-4 year term with an annual cap hit of about $4-$4.5 million.
It is easy to operate under assumptions based on a player's reputation. I sat down to write this piece as an argument in favor of signing Vermette, and my view of him changed after digging into his numbers. He performed very well in the playoffs surrounded by a Cup-winning roster, but he was also a healthy scratch on more than one occasion in the three months he spent in the Windy City.
His value on the faceoff circle is hard to deny, but are those draws worth $4 million per year? He will get that offer somewhere, but should it be in Dallas?