The NHL trade deadline is less than one month away, which means it's high time to start trying to read the tea leaves on how the Dallas Stars and general manager Jim Nill will approach it this season.
The only thing that seems somewhat assured at this point is the Stars won't approach it as traditional sellers, moving all their players with expiring contracts that would leave them as UFAs. While that's a mentality many fans have grown accustomed to during the many seasons of missing the playoffs, it's not how Nill approached things in 2013-14 (when the team was much less secure in a playoff spot), and there is no reason to expect that to change now.
But as far as how active the team will be in pursuing additions, that's still very up in the air. In his weekly 30 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman threw out this little nugget:
Dallas would like to add a defenceman, but there’s a possibility Jim Nill plays it more conservatively than we expect. He’s a big picture thinker, and may look at the Stars as going through the process, as opposed to being at the apex of it. Very intrigued to see what he’ll do.
The real question that sentence leaves with me is what did we expect in the first place?
There's been a fair amount of speculation with the Stars with regards to the defense, but more about how they intend to solve the eight one-way contracts dilemma more than specific target chatter. Fans have thrown out all sorts of speculative targets like Dustin Byfuglien, but there's been very little specific smoke.
So what were people expecting Nill to do? Friedman saying it may be more conservative indicates there were thoughts of a big move, and with regards to his history with Dallas, that makes some sense. While not prone to making huge splashes in the season, there's no question that Nill has not been afraid of the very large trade in the summer. Some people in Boston are still bitter about that lesson.
Trades in season have generally been a bit more limited. In-season moves of note include Brenden Dillon for Jason Demers, Sergei Gonchar for Travis Moen and a sadly regular backup goalie swap. Those trades, while sometimes involving depreciated assets, are more of the value-for-value nature rather than prospects for talent.
The exception is the Erik Cole deal for Mattias Janmark, Mattias Backman and a swap of picks, but that's a seller's trade that the Stars aren't aligned for this season. And, as we'll discuss in a bit, it was not a harbinger of larger moves at the same time.
If we look back at that 2013-14 season, the bubble-team Stars made two deadline deals - the injured Stephane Robidas for a conditional draft pick and the Tim Thomas for Dan Ellis swap. There wasn't any large loading up, but there wasn't a jettisoning of players like UFA-to-be Vernon Fiddler either.
So if seller's trades are off the table, the question becomes the Stars needs and how to address them. As Friedman writes, the defense continues to be an area of concern. Even considering the recent slump, the defense has been "fine" this year, but "fine" doesn't have the playoff cache the Stars may need to lean on.
The counterpoint is that to upgrade a defense from "fine" to more impressive is one of the more difficult tasks for any hockey team, and it does not happen without a large payment, whether that be in development or return. No potential deal has appeared to be too rich for Nill's blood since he took over in 2013, but he's also not one to spend assets wildly. The fit has to be right, both in terms of personnel and timing.
Which brings us back to the original question of where Nill sees the Stars, and what they should do in terms of personnel changes.
Like last season, that can't quite be evaluated by the record. Despite being basically out of the playoff race last season, Nill didn't go wholesale seller beyond the Cole move - he kept Trevor Daley for the short term, for example, as well as Patrick Eaves and Shawn Horcoff. He made a good value move (that looks better by the day) but resisted wholesale changes that some rattled the chains for despite what appeared to be a clear-cut path.
There are parallels to this year, as the Stars can make a strong case as a scary playoff opponent in the early rounds but lack the clout of your Stanley Cup favorites despite the record. The flip side of not trading all of the impending UFAs for prospects and picks is not spending high-potential-value assets on expiring contracts that only make a team better for 3-4 months. That's a traditional buyer's mentality, and it makes sense that Nill isn't looking that direction either.
That isn't to say the team will be silent at the deadline. There is still the defenseman purgatory situation to figure out, after all, which grows only warmer with prospects like Esa Lindell showing they're not out of place on the third pairing. But it's understandable why Friedman suspects they may not make a big splash either way.
We'll know just under a month from now. And even if they're relatively quiet, we always have July to look toward.