It's been a quiet hockey summer so far in Dallas, and that's starting to make a lot of Stars fans nervous.
At first glance, it's easy to see why. From the first drop of the puck last season until the final whistle the Stars just seemed, well...off. They had occasional flashes of brilliance sprinkled throughout the 82-game season, but could never seem to put all the pieces together with any consistency. It was like hockey Whack-A-Mole: just when they'd get one issue sorted out, another would pop up and cause them to lose more games.
This perpetual instability led the Stars down a muddy hill and into a 10th place finish in the Western Conference, six points back of a playoff spot. They ended up 19th overall in the 30-team league.
And yet, despite the team taking a step backwards last year after their heroic and surprising playoff appearance in 2013-2014, general manager Jim Nill and his staff have been relatively quiet this summer, compared to both other teams in the league as well as the Stars themselves over the past two summers.
Adding veteran goaltender Antti Niemi significantly helps to improve the area that was Dallas' biggest weakness last season, and should alone be enough to get the Stars into the playoffs.
But at the same time it wasn't "that move," the big game-changer that elevates the Stars from being a playoff bubble team to one of the NHL's legitimate Cup-contenders.
Even before free agency officially opened, Nill made clear his intentions that he wasn't going to change his team through that course of action.
"I don’t see us as somebody that is going to jump right into it," Nill said. "We are going to be there, and we’re going to see where the market goes. If there is something there that makes sense, we’ll definitely look into it. But just looking at it and analyzing it, I don’t think there is going to be a fit for us to start with. Maybe later on we’ll see what happens."
So, why exactly did Nill and the Stars decide to stick to their guns instead of trying to improve their team through free agency, even with the team's struggles last year?
One big reason, if not the biggest reason, is that the Stars believe that those improvements will already come from inside the roster instead of outside.
For the last few years (the exact number of which is open to debate), the Stars have been a rebuilding organization. Everyone knows the drill of how that works by this point: trade away veteran players for picks and prospects, develop those picks and prospects over time into regular NHLers, and then boom, profit, just like many other teams have done lately.
It was unfamiliar franchise territory when the Stars began down this path, and right now the organization is entering likewise uncharted waters as they embark upon the next necessary stage in the process: transitioning the team's young players from prospects into NHL regulars.
The Stars did a fine job with the first part of the plan, collecting a deep, balanced, impressive pool of young players. However, much like the mythical Underpants Gnomes from South Park, Phase 2 of the plan isn't quite so cut and dry.
On one hand, when you look at all the young players that are currently in the system it's hard to not like what you see. John Klingberg emerged as a true top pairing defenseman at the sport's highest level, even just as a rookie. Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak, Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie all look like they're ready for regular NHL duty. Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, Devin Shore and others are still a little bit further away, but are getting close and have been standouts in the leagues that they've played in.
On the other hand, though, these prospects very quickly need to become players. Long gone are the days of just watching many of these baby-faced teenagers at development camp and pondering about their distant future, or following their European stat lines from a distance on Eliteprospects.com, because the Stars need these guys to be right here, right now, going up against the best competition on the planet.
And that, in a lot of ways, is the hardest part of the whole process.
The Stars need these players to take the reins of crucial roles like Top 6 forwards, Top 4 defensemen, and Top Unit penalty-killers. But aside from Wunderkinds like Klingberg that can jump directly into these positions, the overwhelming majority of these players won't be able to reach those kinds levels without time, without learning experience, without trial and error.
That's the spot, somewhere between a rock and a hard place, that the Stars find themselves in right now. If the older kids, the ones currently ready to make the jump, are to develop and reach their full potential they'll need to play in the NHL, and play in important situations. The flip side of the coin is that there's a very good chance that it's not going to be pretty a lot of the time.
The silver lining, though, is that all of this is still, once again, just part of the process.
The Stars have an abundance of talented young players in their early 20s. And these players, like the majority of other young players throughout hockey history, steadily get better as they get older, with your average forwards peaking around 24-25 and sustaining a high level of play until 29, and your average defensemen theoretically peaking somewhere around 28 or 29.
It's no secret at this point that the Stars need to get better next season. However, there's good evidence that Dallas will already be getting better just by letting the young players play lots of minutes and naturally grow into those roles.
Would it really make sense to, for example, try to sign or trade for a veteran Top 4 defenseman when Nemeth, Jokipakka and Oleksiak could all develop into that kind of role over the next few seasons, and then remain there for even more years on top of that? It might make some sense in the short term, but could be the wrong move in the long-term as the young defenders start to take big steps forward and any veteran defenders begin to unavoidably regress with age.
Now, all of this isn't an exact science. You always need to have at least some veterans around to help guide and mentor the younger players, and Nill has said a few times (here, here and here) that he will make a trade if the right option comes along. And, unfortunately, sometimes prospects never pan out in their development like you expect them to.
But the Stars are certainly staying the course on a path that makes sense. It won't be easy, and for a lot of the time it won't be pretty, but it's a process that could yield significant returns if everything falls into place.