You would never know it now, but before John Klingberg, Stars fans had an optimistic outlook of their blueline. Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth were part of a Calder Cup winning Texas Stars squad, and fans said that the kids were...not bad.
Fast forward to 2017 and both were afterthoughts; fodder for the expansion draft. Expendable assets, as an 80's action star might say. More than that they were symbols of Jim Nill's awkward attempt at rolling with eight defensemen - a move considered by many to be a mistake, creating discontent among the young blueliners at best, stunting their development at worst.
It's not a foregone conclusion that Oleksiak and Nemeth won't be in Dallas. They’ve received qualifying offers. Nill may wonder, as fans have, whether or not Ken Hitchcock can improve their games.
But they'd have to experience a miraculous progression as players to think they could rise above the current ranks. Klingberg, Marc Methot, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns, and Dan Hamhuis will comprise the key core.
I’d argue that Nill has a similar problem brewing down the middle. It’s a nice problem to have. But a problem nonetheless.
There’s a reason Dallas lost Cody Eakin to Las Vegas. Yes, his dreadful 2016-2017 season was one very good reason.
The other reason is that they could simply afford to lose him. They could afford to lose him because Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Radek Faksa knock him down the depth chart. But Nill could have kept going. Devin Shore knocked him down the depth chart. Adam Cracknell, who has experience at center, and never played with Benn or Seguin, outproduced Eakin too and knocked him down the depth chart.
In addition, they have several prospects on the cusp of making the team. In addition to Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, who have shown promise, there's also Gemel Smith. Smith has the lowest ceiling of any Dallas prospect, but he's an ideal 4th line center. Not to mention, an absolute terror on the penalty kill. A trait he proved at the NHL level. But let's start with the most critical part of this argument.
Dallas Should Stay Away from UFA (Radulov being the exception)
With Dallas’ defense more or less set, Nill must now turn to offense. Despite Dallas’ reputation as a high flying offense, they were anything but this past season. If Valeri Nichushkin doesn’t return, Dallas is once again looking at a group thin at wing.
The UFA class is a mixed bag. Patrick Marleau is an interesting name. Even though RW is the spot hurting the most, Dallas needs someone next to Spezza, and Mattias Janmark, his normal sweetmate could probably profit from easier minutes as he recovers from his knee condition. Jarome Iginla might make for a nice Sunday read, but he wouldn’t improve the team, even short term.
Justin Williams is obviously valuable, but he’ll be 35 once the season starts, and even though he’s not injury prone for a veteran, Nill should at least consider the possibility that his shiny free agent may succumb to age just as Sharp and Hemsky have. Alexander Radulov is my top choice, personally. With Nichushkin and Denis Gurianov in the system, he could provide the mentor role for his fellow Russians. At 30 years of age (31 in July), even lengthy term wouldn’t feel crippling. Dallas doesn’t have immediate help at RW, and even their best prospects range from question marks (Nichushkin) to MIA (after Gurianov who fits the bill?). The asking price is high, but so is the value.
It’s not a great UFA class. Most players would be stop gaps at best. But there are options. This is where a classic “hockey trade” fits the bill.
But Who Does Dallas Trade For?
Nill would have to make hard decisions in this scenario.
Roope Hintz might be Dallas’ most intriguing center prospect, and the closest the team has to a blue(ish) chip center. This season Hintz led the Liiga in points per game played for players aged 20 and under. He was a full point per game in the playoffs. And he threatens in the higher danger areas you’d expect from someone who can produce consistently. Heat map via prospect-stats.
Hintz is the prospect least likely to go, given the mystery and potential, and his proximity near playing time.
Dickinson and Shore also show promise. But what about the promise of a player who can fill in Dallas’ gaps at wing? Roussel, Ritchie, and Faksa will likely fill out the checking line role. But the 4th line is positively crowded. Shore, Smith, Dickinson, Elie, Cracknell, McKenzie, and Gurianov will likely compete for spots in the bottom three (and possibly Janmark if he’s not 100%). Even if you slot one of them next to Spezza, that’s still a lot of culling you need for the herd. Except for Gurianov, none are natural right wingers. Nill is clearly making a move to push for a Cup window. Do these players get them closer? If not, who should Nill be talking to?
New York has entered a quasi-rebuild, trading Derek Stepan for Arizona’s first rounder. While they’re certainly not looking to tear it all down, it does seem like they’re looking to get younger. Enter Rick Nash. He has a massive cap hit, but he’s only signed for one more year. Dallas could do worse than trading a center (+) for a veteran winger who will push Dallas into the elite with his speed, and two way play. Though he’s a left wing, Dallas doesn’t have anyone penciled in next to Spezza who could be described as a qualified impact player. They’re hoping for Janmark, Shore, and possibly Dickinson, but if Dallas is looking to win it all in the near future, they’re gonna need more than hope.
The Wild are no longer in cap trouble but they need to sign Mikael Granlund and Nino Neiderreiter to quality contracts. And they’d probably like room for a free agent, whether now or at the deadline. Could Dallas entice Minnesota to take one of their young centers and a pick/prospect for Charlie Coyle? Wild fans would probably balk at this, but luckily GM’s, creatures of randomness, are responsible for these decisions. Coyle is coming off a career year with 56 points.
I’ve appreciated Coyle’s game for awhile - he’s a fantastic puck carrier with size, speed, and plays well across all three zones. Though Stars fans often settle for a warm body next to Benn and Seguin, why not acquire a proper fit? Someone who isn’t there to be a passenger, but who actively elevates their game? Coyle would take a combination of warm bodies, but Nill needs to add by substracting at this stage of the game. Especially for a forward who can age with the current core.
Detroit is another team with serious cap concerns in need of cost controlled assets. Gustav Nyquist fits the profile of a relatively young winger who can immediately improve Dallas’ forward group. He’s signed through 2020, right when Spezza’s deal ends, and could be part of any one of Dallas’ top nine.
MTL obviously has to get busy. Need D or two, C or two, and it sure sounds like Galchenyuk is likely to be on the move at some point.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) June 22, 2017
Well Mr. Bergevin, Dallas has plenty of extra defensemen and centers. They clearly liked Jordie Benn. Would they like Nemeth and a young center too? Alex Galchenyuk has the certified skill to take over the Spezza role, but he also has experience playing left wing. Obviously, Dallas acquiring Galchenyuk for ‘scraps’ would be considered a coup. But he’s certainly a name Dallas should have their eye on while they’re dangling quality players of their own.
Dallas won’t ever approximate the depth of Nashville or Anaheim’s blueline. They’d be wise to fill out their own profile - drawing their inspiration from the team they were during the 2015-2016 season. A team with reckless energy, and the kind of forward depth that eases the pressure off their dynamic duo to make them even more dangerous.