Welcome to September, the month where the Dallas Stars officially begin preparations for the 2015-16 NHL season.
Before we get to the start of training camp in less than three weeks, there's a little bit of remaining offseason business to take care of. The signing of Cody Eakin to a four-year contract extension gives us one more chance to look at the salary cap, this time with regards to what is facing the team next summer. While the Stars are still in fine position, especially compared to some of their more cash-strapped brethren, they will likely be facing some interesting decisions.
Let's start with a look at the commitments they have right now, sorted by position. The years remaining column is with regards to to how things will look next offseason.
|Player||Position||Cap Hit (in millions)||Years Remaining|
That's eight players (and most of the top six, to be fair) for $34.925 million in cap hit.
There are four forward unrestricted free agents - Travis Moen, Vernon Fiddler, Patrick Eaves, and Colton Sceviour. More notably, there are two fairly major restricted free agents in Valeri Nichushkin and Brett Ritchie. We'll talk about what negotiating power they might have after putting together the full cap picture.
Here's how the defense looks:
|Player||Cap Hit (in millions)||Years Remaining|
Key unrestricted free agents on the defense are Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn. Jamie Oleksiak is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. At the moment, the Stars have $9.8 million committed to four players.
The goalies are fairly simple:
|Player||Cap Hit (in millions)||Years Remaining|
Two players, $10.4 million in cap hit.
When you combine all three groups along with the $900,000 retained from Ryan Garbutt's salary, it's a total of 14 players for $56.025 million (the actual payroll is slightly less).
The salary cap will likely go up but only slightly, brought up by things like natural growth and some new sponsorship and multimedia contracts but dragged back by the struggling Canadian dollar. With a cap of $71.4 million this season, let's call it an even $72.5 million just for giggles.
With the cap in that range, the Stars would have $16.475 million for 8-9 players, not a whole lot of wiggle room but certainly doable. On the forward end, they will need to re-sign Nichushin and Ritchie, but the majority of the forward needs are in the bottom six and can be filled with inexpensive veterans or cost-controlled prospects.
Both Ritchie and Nichushkin present interesting RFA cases. Nichushkin has the greater leverage with the lurking spectre of the KHL, but he will also need a strong season to earn more than a standard bridge contract for a very talented forward. Losing much of last season to a hip injury doesn't help his case in this area. Likewise, Ritchie may find himself in bridge land if only because he doesn't have a clear top six role (and therefore not a great case to be paid like a top six player).
To be honest, I expect a nice raise for Nichushkin (perhaps in the $3-$3.5 million average annual value range on a classic bridge) but not a huge one for Ritchie. Something around $5 million for the two of them would be my wild guess before they even step foot on the ice this season. Add another $2.5 million for 2-3 relatively inexpensive bottom six forwards.
That would leave around $9 million for three defensemen, and that's where the interesting question is. There are issues of both personnel overcrowding and a tight cap. Goligoski is a metrics dream and has been extremely reliable for the Stars since his acquisition. Jason Demers is three years younger and was excellent in difficult minutes last season after being picked up from San Jose Sharks.
Both will likely have strong interest on the UFA market if they have comparable seasons this year, though the saga of Cody Franson may throw a little water on that fire. Even so, the cap space (and fact that Demers really is a $4 million player right now - part of his salary is still picked up by the Sharks) and the modest raises both are in line for means the Stars will likely have to choose between the two.
Jordie Benn is also an interesting case. Although he is certainly polarizing among parts of the fanbase, his underlying possession numbers are very solid (and in difficult minutes). He is also likely in line for a modest, if not more, raise. Would he take a hometown discount to continue to play with his brother for at least another season? Would another team overpay him in an attempt to woo Jamie Benn to leave the following offseason? It's certainly something the Stars can't ignore.
Which brings us to the issue of roster space. It's pretty clear the eight defenseman situation the Stars will enter training camp with is short term. Attrition could come via injury, a trade, or a waiver claim, but it will come at some point. But there are prospects like Esa Lindell, Julius Honka and most notably Stephen Johns who all appear ready to make a push.
If the Stars really believe they are opening their window now, they aren't likely to go with three rookies on the blueline in 2016-17, but there probably should be at least one spot for them to fight over.
The situation remains extremely manageable, and the nothing about Eakin's new contract will put a crunch on the goal of retaining Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. The timely expiration of some large contracts at the same time (Hemsky and Sharp for Benn and Spezza for Seguin) means the Stars could almost certainly offer the league maximum to both. But there will be some tough decisions next offseason, particularly at defense, driven both by cap and roster space.