The NHL regular season begins for the Dallas Stars next Thursday when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. There are dozens of writers and thousands of fans trying to figure out what this team will look like when the season is over. Will they make the playoffs? Are they contenders? How will Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya fit with the established core in Big D?
No one knows, but we are pretty close to finding out.
Today, we are going to take a deeper look into the mid-term plans for this organization. What will this team look like in the next five years?
Last week, Sean McIndoe at Grantland broke down all 30 NHL teams' five year forecast. Out of 500 percent (100 percent once a year for five years), he assigned a percentage to each team based on their chances to win a Stanley Cup in the next five years. While you may be able to argue that his understanding of how statistics work is a bit flawed, that isn't important. What is important is, where do the Stars fit?
You can read his three-part series here, here, and here (the Stars are in the middle section: The Parity Patrol). Spoiler Alert: The Stars, according to McIndoe, are No. 13 on his list of most likely teams to win a Cup in the next five years at 18 percent.
These four paragraphs are the shallow end of the Stars' analysis, but the guy has to cover 30 NHL teams. We are Defending Big D, and we are only interested in one.
So, what is the Stars' five-year forecast?
As McIndoe asserts, this is an exciting team. Full of goal scoring and young talent. The reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg make this a fun team to watch. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this team has a solid core to build around for the next five-seven years. The rocket scientist comes into play when trying to fill in around budding superstars.
The salary cap era in hockey has shortened playoff windows from five-eight years down to two-three years. Part of what makes the Blackhawks run so impressive is the fact they have rebuilt their roster almost every year since they won in 2010.
For purposes of this article, I am going to split the Stars five-year forecast into two separate "windows" and look at the forecast for each.
Window No. 1 - 2015 through 2018
Other than Jamie Benn and Alex Goligoski, no key Stars' players will enter unrestricted free agency in the first window. Valeri Nichushkin and a few young defensemen will enter restricted free agency during this time, but the Stars will have the right of first refusal on these players. Johnny Hockey, Tyler Seguin, Cody Eakin, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, and the young guns like Radek Faska, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, Denis Guryanov, and Remi Elie will either be under contract or RFAs.
Depending on how a few questions are answered in the near-term like goaltending and all-things-blue-line, this window looks promising for the Stars. With teams like Chicago and St. Louis' windows closing, the timing may be right for at least a deep playoff run if not a Stanley Cup in the next two-three seasons.
There are three questions the Stars must answer in the first window:
1) How much money is Jamie Benn going to make in two years? The answer is a lot. All of the cash will belong to him. And he deserves it.
2) Is Alex Goligoski a part of the mid-term plan in Dallas? He has proven a valuable asset, and puck moving defensemen like Goligoski are coveted commodities. However, the play of young defensemen like Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth, and Jamie Oleksiak may decide Goligoski's fate in Dallas. With Jamie Benn's looming deal, if a young guy shows enough promise this year, would Jim Nill part with half of his first pairing?
3) How many prospects will break into the fold in the next three years, and how effective will they be? This is literally impossible to say. Honda, Lindell, Faska, and Dickinson look like promising players, but how many will become core players? For the Stars to win a Cup in the next five years, at least three of them will need to become good players, and one of those needs to be a superstar.
Window No. 2 - 2018 through 2020
Now it gets interesting. Seguin, Eakin, and Sharp will all be UFAs before window No. 2 closes, and a good number of the young guys will have new contracts. Nichushkin could see a bridge deal turn him loose to UFA in window No. 2. Obviously, the picture gets murkier the farther into the future you look.
By this time, Jamie Benn will be rich and Tyler Seguin will get paid. Don't be surprised if after Seguin's contract, the Stars have a pair of young forwards each making $10.5 million per season. If this sounds familiar, that's because the Blackhawks have a similar duo in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Blackhawks just tore down their third Stanley Cup winning roster since 2010.
Your opinion of the Stars' chances in the second window hinge almost entirely on the prospect pool as it is currently constructed. It looks promising to me, but how many superstars are currently playing in Cedar Park? Will anyone make the leap from minor-leaguer to NHL All-Star?
The important questions to be answered for the second window are:
1) How will the Stars draft in the meantime? The Stars hope to be contenders, and drafting 18-25 is tough sledding. This will require shrewd use of draft picks, as young players on rookie/RFA deals are gold in the salary cap era. Players drafted 2014-2016 will be breaking into the roster full-time at the beginning of window No. 2, and their performances will float the boat by 2018.
Sean McIndoe is not impressed with the Stars' cupboard of prospects, but with potential game breakers like Guryanov and Honka coming up, I disagree. My position doesn't matter, but the fate of the team in window No. 2 will rest on their shoulders.
2) How will the Stars manage their second tier players? Think Antoine Roussel, Vernon Fiddler, Jordie Benn, etc. Many ships have been sunk by ridiculous deals given to role players (Hello, Toronto). Jim Nill has proven that he is not interested in overpaying veterans, but it only takes one or two contracts to break a window.
3) Jack Campbell and Philippe Desrosiers? Goalies take forever to mature. So if the Stars' goalie for window No. 2 is currently on the roster, it will probably be one of these two players. It is worth mentioning that there is a decent chance either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi will be the starter in four years, but five years from now probably not. Will Campbell or Desrosiers be ready by year five?
The chances for any one team winning a Stanley Cup are extremely slim. Luck, injuries, and other good teams all stand in the way of Dallas and the ultimate prize, no matter which window you think looks more promising.
In a vacuum, logic says the Stars best opportunity to win a Cup will be in window No. 1. A favorable contract situation and a core of superstars in their prime tell us the roster will have their best shot to climb the mountain. Before the Seguin contract the team will have flexibility to make a few "win-now" moves.
After the Seguin contract is signed, the team will be operating more like the Anaheim Ducks than the Tampa Bay Lightning. A few bright prospects give the team hope for window No. 2, but it will be an uphill climb after Seguin signs long term.
There is a lot to like about this team and their five-year outlook. But to go from good to great, the Stars will need to make the right moves on key days like draft day, the trade deadline, and opening of free agency. The core is in place for the next five years, but will the players around them be good enough to win hockey's ultimate prize?