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Matching Minors: Should Dallas Stars Buy or Be Wary at Trade Deadline?

The NHL trade deadline is fast approaching on February 26. Will GM Jim Nill partake in trade talks before then?

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
The Stars could use a little speed, and a little scoring up top. Does Michael Grabner, perhaps, fit the bill?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Wes: The Dallas Stars are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, good for fifth place (as of February 7) in the Western Conference. Only four points separate the Stars from the ninth place Calgary Flames, who have one game in hand. At home, the Stars are an unwelcoming 19-8-1, which trails only the Winnipeg Jets (20-3-2) in terms of home wins in the Western Conference. On the road, the Stars are a single game over .500 (12-11-3). Since January 20, the Stars have crushed Buffalo (7-1), Florida (6-1), and Minnesota (6-1), but during the same stretch have been handed losses by Los Angeles (0-3) and Toronto (1-4).

Prior to last night’s game against the Blackhawks, individually, Ben Bishop has 22 wins and a .919 save percentage. Tyler Seguin is eighth in goals (26), but the Stars have only a single player (Alexander Radulov with 51 points) in the league’s top 20 by overall points. Admittedly, John Klingberg (50 points), Jamie Benn (49 points), and Seguin (48 points) are close, but the next-highest scoring Star after them is Mattias Janmark at 29 points. Things are a bit unbalanced.

The Dallas Stars are 13-5-4 against the Eastern Conference (that’s good), but only 18-14-0 against the West (that’s bad). They’re 10-4-0 against the Pacific Division (that’s good), but an appalling 8-10-0 against the Central Division (that’s bad). The sprinkles are also cursed, is what I’m saying.

This is worrisome. Are the Stars really good? Kind of good? Frisky? I’m having trouble calibrating the scale.

This is a trade deadline article, by the way, which is why figuring out where to put the Stars is so very important. Especially in a year where players like Mike Hoffman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Pacioretty could be available. A year where the New York Rangers might have a fire sale (Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Ryan McDonagh). And a year where John Tavares’ contract hangs over the New York Islanders like Mike Milbury’s Shoe (hockey’s version of the Sword of Damocles).

Buying means adding to this past summer’s substantial investment (Radulov, Bishop, Martin Hanzal) and potentially creating an impact to their very well-managed salary cap. Not buying could cost the Stars a shot to compete seriously come playoff time, and burn a precious year of excellence from the Stars’ key players. How good does this team look if you bolster the wings? How bad does the team look if a trade doesn’t work and thereby makes re-signing Seguin more difficult? Given all of this, what are the Stars supposed to do?

There’s no way I can figure this one out on my own. I need help. I need a hero. I need Ales Hemsky’s biggest fan. By golly, that’s Robert Tiffin’s music!

Robert: Well, always Frisky. Also, “bolster the wings” is going on my family crest once I learn how to translate it into Latin. Second, let’s be frank about the trade deadline: it only truly has the potential to be immediately good for your team if that team is already good, and therefore a buyer. Even then it’s a mixed bag. Dallas has “loaded up” for the playoffs in years past with additions like Brad Richards (good) and Ladislav Nagy (well), Tim Thomas (definitely a veteran goalie) and Kris Russell (definitely a veteran defenseman). So the trade deadline should never be looked to as a panacea, but more as a booster shot.

I’ve been curt, at times, regarding the Stars’ difficulty in separating themselves from the morass of middling teams for much of the season, but credit where it’s due: the Stars are looking good. The scoring is back, the power play is dangerous (when they get on it), and the defense and goaltending are downright stingy. If the Stars were in any other division, we’d probably be able to look past the slim margin between here (at fourth) and ninth place. Yet Dallas has continually excelled at finding the toughest divisions, and here we are: the team’s new Hitchcock system is working as planned, the goalies’ numbers lately reflect that, and the Stars are another two-game losing streak from falling out of the playoff picture. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, and it’s life in the Central Division. No one said it would be easy, kid.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Chicago Blackhawks
Hitchcock’s unique style of coaching has changed the Stars’ output on the ice this season.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

In general, I think most GMs can’t resist adding to a playoff team at the deadline. The playoffs are a crap shoot to an extent. If you have a way to shorten the odds for your guys, why not flip some pieces that you don’t need right now for someone who, on paper, can fill the holes you do need filled? It’s why the Minnesota Wild traded for Martin Hanzal last year, for goodness’ sake. GMs love them some bolstering.

The Stars are in a tricky spot, though. With limited cap space, they will most likely need to find a trade partner who can take an additional contract or two to make the money work (and hey, the Rangers just waived Brendan Smith and freed up some more cap space). That’s more complicated, and given how deadline deals often come together at the last minute, the Stars’ currently (but not forever) bloated cap could be an obstacle. But then, we’re selling Jim Nill short. He knows how to make deals happen, if they’re good ones in the team’s mind.

So, uh, yes, the Stars could use help at wing, but they probably won’t be willing to pay for it. Put it this way: would you trade Julius Honka for any of those names listed above? We don’t know Jim Nill’s heart, but I find it tough to believe that he’d be willing to abandon his first true first-round draft pick with Dallas for just a few months of a winger who presumably will score more than Brett Ritchie or Devin Shore have been able to do in a top-six right wing role.

Ultimately, that’s what the Stars need to decide—if a right wing is the target for Dallas (and I think it would be). Is it worth the difference between what Shore/Ritchie can provide and what the import would pot? I have a hard time saying “yes” to that scenario. Frankly, I don’t think the Stars’ are just a better right wing away from winning the Cup. They’re either good enough with their current roster, or they’re too far from true competitor status for one better winger to make the difference. Either way, why pay through the nose for a rental? Just play Gemel Smith with Jason Spezza and Janmark for a time and see what happens. But I digress.

Wes: “There’s no point, don’t bother.” Robert Tiffin, everyone!

Well, we agree on one thing, if the Stars are going to do any deadline business, it’s going to be on the right side. There is a 27-point gap abyss between Radulov and Shore (or a 42-point gap if you consider Ritchie to be the Stars’ number two right wing). That gap is why I mentioned the road record earlier (12-11-3). Last change is a real, legit thing. If you don’t believe me, ask Alexander Radulov (31 points at home, 20 points on the road) and Tyler Seguin (32 points at home, 16 points on the road). Given the advantage of last change, NHL coaches can cause trouble.

Over-reliance on one scoring line is the sort of thing that tends to get exposed across a seven game series, when an opponent has the time to game plan specifically against the Stars. It’s why Jeff Carter mattered so much to the Kings, and why the Detroit Red Wings would periodically separate and combine Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Right now, the Stars don’t have that ability. For as much as I hope Spezza’s recent strong play (three points in his first four post-All Star Game games) is some sign they’ve figured out the lines, it just seems silly to avoid addressing a major problem.

I also cannot help but think about last year’s Ottawa Senators (a limited team that came within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final), or the Los Angeles Kings run in 2012. Weird things happen once the playoffs start, small changes matter, and teams make runs. Right now, the Stars have an absolutely elite first line, dangerous special teams, and apparently, a stout defense. Why is it so crazy to think that the right (pun intended) addition to the offense could push this team into a Conference Final?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars
Jason Spezza’s performance after the All Star break has significantly bolstered the depth in the Stars lineup.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Line changes can have cascading impact. What if Mike Hoffman’s ability to catch and release the puck proves a good compliment to Janmark’s hustle and Spezza’s vision? Suddenly, Ken Hitchcock doesn’t have to worry about using Radulov to fix other lines. A functional second unit would also force opposing coaches to spread out their defensive assets. An extra shift or two against a team’s second pairing per game for the Seguin line could be the margin of victory in a tight playoff series.

My final point would be that this problem isn’t going away. As much as I’d love to talk myself into Valeri Nichushkin riding in from Siberia on a Tauntaun to save the day, or Denis Guryanov making “the leap”, the Stars are not overflowing with offensive options on the right side. Somebody is going to have to play right wing on the second line next season, the season after, and so on. There will be players available during the offseason, but a move then won’t help now. It’s also possible teams like the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers will stabilize somewhat and take a few assets off the board.

Jim Nill could solve a problem today and possibly bolster a playoff run, or he could wait and solve the same problem over the summer, after the playoffs have ended. Seems like a waste to wait. Doesn’t it?

To close with a question, is there any deal you see that might make sense? More broadly, if the Stars aren’t one move away, are they two, three, or seven? If this isn’t the season, what’s the actual plan? Dazzle me, Robert.

Robert: I have always despised trade speculation, and I do not want anyone else to have fun, either. Hockey is about constantly not trying anything risky so that maybe, eventually, something good can happen to you, after which you can just humbly shrug it off and say it was probably due to some other guy anyway, and you don’t even care about the big, shiny trophy you just got.

Minnesota Wild v Dallas Stars
In case you’re wondering, the last time the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup was in 1999. Hitchcock was head coach (for the first time) and Mike Modano was still on the roster.

Nichushkin may not be just over the horizon this season, but there’s little doubt from what we’ve heard recently that he will be back next year. Roles and all that, so of course you make room for a great player if you can get him, but to answer the trade question, I’m not sold on the Stars picking up a winger who isn’t also an expiring UFA. Unless you’re okay moving Val to left wing, there wouldn’t really be room in the top nine for him with Radulov, Tyler Pitlick, and a potential trade acquisition sitting there next year. The Stars may not want to welcome Val back with open arms only to put him on the fourth line.

Bidding for Max Pacioretty and his ilk is going to be outlandish with how tight the West is, and I think Jim Nill will say, “No, thank you” to absurd asks. Instead, he might target someone who won’t break the bank, but might give them a bit more goal scoring than Shore, Ritchie, or even Spezza has brought this year. That is not the highest of bars.

In other words, I could see Nill making more of a Michael Grabner move than a Rick Nash one, if that makes sense. But then again, every GM would rather give up less for Michael Grabner than more for Rick Nash. In retrospect, the Kris Russell trade was about fair market price for what too many teams thought (still think?) about Kris Russell.

Scoring help is even more costly though, so you’re probably looking at losing, I dunno, someone from Texas you don’t really want to lose, a second-ish round pick, and a roster player for someone like Grabner, maybe with a later pick attached to him from New York. The names make a big difference (as they do in all of life), but I have a hard time swallowing the swapping of cost-controlled contracts of younger players for a rental that may or may not pan out in Hitch’s system on a Stars team that has been solidly good-but-not-yet-amazing. Tampa and Boston and Nashville (and maybe, good gravy, Winnipeg?) can make those kinds of deals, knowing where they stand. Dallas would be fooling itself to think they’re in that class quite yet.

As for the Ottawa example, you never ever want to hope that your team can emulate Ottawa. I think that’s fairly noncontroversial. Besides, the playoff road in the West will be miles more brutal than what Ottawa had last year. That was a lucky year for the Senators, and teams shouldn’t be throwing chips on 17 Red because they have a good feeling about this spin of the wheel.

The secondary scoring isn’t a concern for me, to be honest. I wish Radek Faksa (who has only one fewer five-on-five goal than Radulov) got more minutes and any power play time. However, the Stars have gotten some offense from this lineup, even if Antoine Roussel isn’t having another career year and Spezza is more of a primary assist machine than anything else. Besides, this lineup isn’t deployed to score tons of goals, and probably won’t be if the Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn pairing continues to be asked to wipe our collective memory of a third of every game.

The top line is expected to contribute. The Hanzal line (which I’m betting Hitch will use as a second line in the playoffs) is expected to be big and shut things down. And finally, the lower lines face slightly weaker competition, which is how Mattias Janmark has piled up a decent sum of points so far. This lineup doesn’t have holes, but the unproductive seasons of Ritchie, Shore and Spezza make the goal-scoring slightly more concerning. However, help is on the way. Rent someone reasonable if you must, but this team doesn’t need a lot of secondary scoring if the power play is clicking and the defense is sticking to its guns.

New York Rangers v Dallas Stars
The bottom six have tightened their game this season, but the lack of scoring depth is still a concern.

So, why not go big at the deadline, or even go at all? Because I believe this team could be a good step better as soon as next year, even if Ken Hitchcock digs in and doesn’t want Julius Honka or Miro Heiskanen in his lineup. Radek Faksa has earned more trust as the season’s moved along, and this team has been one of the best in terms of out-chancing the opponent in the league. There aren’t very many problems to solve right now, but without the cap space, it’s going to cost a lot more to solve one now than it might in the summer.

Maybe I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I just don’t have a great feeling about what it will look like if the Stars fight the Black Friday lines to get Mike Hoffman; although I guess the Stars have gotten decent players from the Senators before. I’d rather see the Stars ride it out and add Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson to the regular mix next season (I’d guess Guryanov is another year away in the organization’s eyes). In addition to this, I would hope that the Stars look to swing a trade at the draft for a Jordan Eberle type, or even wait for July 1 and go all in for John Tavares. The deadline is such a gamble, and if the Stars can’t make noise in (or even get to) the playoffs without a big trade, there’s probably much more work that needs to be done anyway.

Besides all of this, Hitch may be asking Nill to trade for another defenseman as we speak, so this is all moot anyway, right?

But that’s not what the people want to hear, so go ahead, Mr. Big Fancy Beer League Player and Writer Guy: what would you do, or what will the Stars do, if those are different things?

Wes: First, I need to get my eye to stop twitching. Another defenseman? Unless they’re about to shut Marc Methot down for the year, I think the back line is stocked plenty, thank you very much. This isn’t 2015-2016.

Dallas Stars v Winnipeg Jets
Methot has been on Injured Reserve since January 4 due to a knee injury.
Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Believe it or not, we’re not as far away in thinking as it might seem. I don’t think Dallas is a swing-for-the-fences kind of team, at least not mid-season, and I don’t think they should be that team. If the prices truly do leap into the stratosphere, I think it would be fine and dandy to sit this one out. I just remember last season, when it felt like asking prices dipped a touch as the deadline approached. If somebody else is desperate, I’d love to see Jim Nill throwing a few anvils around the league.

Depending on how the prospects and dollars shake out, I think Rick Nash would be an interesting target. Not so much because he’s still a guy that can score 40 goals, but because he has a distinct profile as a player, and could adjust well to a secondary role. He brings to mind how Jason Spezza flourished initially while playing with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Nash would give the Stars something different.

Max Domi is another name I’ve seen a few times. He’s just 22-years-old and has played well in the past. While Arizona seems to think his development has stalled, they’re also Arizona. I know it’s an easy shot to take, but context matters, especially for young wingers. Put him on a more structured, more talented team and you might see a much different player. You might not, but his cap hit is relatively small. Dallas could walk away if things went south. There are rumors he’s available, and as a team not destined to compete in the immediate term, the Arizona Coyotes might be willing to settle for a more features-heavy package than any important, currently-rostered players.

Evander Kane is also someone I would consider. Yes, there are rumors and risk. It’s very possible he could turn out like Sean Avery, but isn’t it also possible he could be like Mike Ribiero? Kane has played well this season in tough circumstances, and has a new contract on the horizon. As something of a reclamation project, his price might also be a bit more reasonable. It feels like there’s enough of a leadership group entrenched in Dallas to mitigate any personality friction, so why not take a shot on a guy with lots of skill and lots to prove?

And finally, Mike Hoffman. Throw out this miserable season and he’s been a consistent point producer since becoming a full-time NHL player in 2014-2015. At 28-years-old he isn’t likely to leap forward, but he should have several productive seasons left. Outside of Seguin, the Stars lack a dedicated gunner. Like Nash, adding Hoffman might introduce an interesting wrinkle into the Stars’ attack. Of course he’s the biggest risk, with a contract term extending beyond this season, but you have to spend money to make money, right? Of the marquee of names, he’s the one I’m probably most interested in.

That said, I’m not exactly Mr. Rumors Guy. There could be better fits and different names floating around. I just think this team has a problem to solve. I do think that, whatever happens, whether the Stars are active or not will be a huge indicator of where they feel they are as an organization, and how much longer they expect to be there. Stars fans stand to learn quite a bit about their beloved team over the next few weeks.