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What Free Agents Should Be On Stars’ Wish List This Weekend?

Jim Nill and the Stars front office need to shore up some positions this summer, and some of that could come from free agent signings

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Stars ending to the 2017-18 season destroyed the fanbase, left pundits asking the tough questions, and puts general manager Jim Nill squarely in the spotlight as free agency approaches this weekend.

The criticism of the Stars entire operation is completely warranted. After being crowned “winners of the offseason” for much of Jim Nill’s tenure, the Stars have seen two playoff births, which are overshadowed by terrible disappointments. Time is simply running out for the Stars to figure it out and catch up to the teams that have lapped them in the past two seasons.

The good news for Stars fans is that his free agency class is deep enough for the Stars to make across-the-board improvements come July 1, if they so choose.

Obviously, John Tavares has the potential to instantly impact the Stars roster. But the depth players of this free agency class have also played vital roles on their current clubs and can really fit into the Dallas Stars puzzle as well.

In an offseason where the Stars have serious holes to plug throughout their lineup, this is welcome to news to the fanbase, players, and ultimately the front office. However, before we get into who the Stars should acquire, we need to start with what they need and how much they have to spend.

NHL: NHL Awards Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

What are the three biggest needs?

The Dallas Stars have some serious needs in all three zones of their lineup, and the holes became apparent during the last stretch of the regular season. Without consistent depth scoring, the top line of the Stars was overburdened with much of the scoring duties. It’s hard to say that they didn’t shoulder the load, but top heavy teams don’t win in the NHL, as evidenced by the team’s precipitous fall from a playoff spot late last year. The club needs a second line scoring threat, whether that is someone new at center or someone the team can pair with Jason Spezza and kick-start the 35-year-old’s scoring this year.

This should be the top priority for the front office when free agency opens. While the Stars defense and goaltending improved in spades last season, there is always room for improvement in this area of the game as well. While a backup goaltender is priority 1B, the Stars could also look at a move on a blueline that is projected to be quite young experience-wise next season as it stands today.

Even with the long hinted addition of Miro Heiskanen to the defense, the club needs to explore the possibility of adding a veteran defenseman to pair with the existing corp. Equally as important is the addition of a backup goaltender who can shoulder the load behind Ben Bishop, as Kari Lehtonen’s play when Bishop went down with a knee injury after Hamhuis fell on it was enough for the team to all but state they weren’t going to bring the long-time goaltender back into the Dallas fold this season.

How much money are they working with to make these additions?

The Stars salary cap situation bodes well for the club being able to go out and acquire players in all three areas of need, as they sit with $19.8 million in space before signing their RFAs to new contracts and before adding Valeri Nichushkin back to the NHL club again (the reported deal for Nichushkin is two years with an average annual value of $2.95 million). Realistically, the Stars likely have approximately $12 million or so that they can use on free agent signings, without making any trades, as the roster stands today.

The Stars will also be hoping to lock in Tyler Seguin to a mega extension this summer that will not impact this season’s salary cap. His extension is basically Spezza’s contract when it expires next season, so the Stars appear to be healthy cap-wise both in the short term (this season) and in the long term (next season and beyond).

With all of this in mind, here are three players who could fill the holes for the Stars in 2018-19.

Forward: James Van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Stats: 609 games played; 201 G, 192 A, 303 Pts

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To describe James Van Riemsdyk in a word would be “explosive”. In the 2017-18 season, JVR recorded 36 goals, 18 assists, for 54 points. However, assists and points are not why teams will be inquiring about his services. The guy just finds dangerous areas of the ice and produces goals for his club, and he scores in bunches. A scoring winger like JVR is hard to come by, and the club that has been benefiting from his offensive output, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are likely to part ways with the talented winger after six seasons. With talented kids coming into the Leafs lineup, he might prove too expensive to keep around in hockey’s capital.

JVR is a huge presence on the ice, standing at 6’3, 210lbs, he moves around the ice with power and speed. His shot is also effective from the hashmarks in, and his big body in front of the net makes him a constant scoring threat in tight. He could also be a perfect fit on the Stars second line with Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark. This could give the Stars an ideal threat behind the heavyweight first line.

JVR has also demonstrated consistency during his career with the Flyers and Leafs, as he has scored over 20 goals five times and 30 twice. He also has stayed relatively healthy, suiting up for over 80 games four of the last five seasons.

After his 36 goal season last year, JVR will be looking for a significant pay raise on July 1. He is a prototypical power forward, and at 29 is in the prime of his goalscoring years. He currently makes $5 million per year, and has a modified NTC in his existing deal. The Stars should expect the winger to command a deal in the neighborhood of $7.5 million in average annual salary and a term of 5 to 6 years. This would eat up the rest of JVR’s prime and then some, but would leave enough room for the Stars to re-sign Seguin comfortably when a bevy of deals come off the books in 2019.

Defense: Ian Cole (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Stats: 405 games played; 20 G, 77 A, 97 Pts; Two Stanley Cups

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Ian Cole provides three things for his teams, and three things that the Dallas Stars could use on their backend. Physicality, shutdown ability, and championship experience. Valuable assets to any team looking to take the next step. Cole spent his 2017-18 in two locations, first in Pittsburgh where he’d won two consecutive Stanley Cups and then Columbus where he helped the Jackets to the playoffs. In 67 games last season, Cole potted in 5 goals and added in 15 assists, tying his career high in goals and putting up his second highest career point total. Cole has also played in 54 playoff games over the past three years.

Cole is a fairly average body for a defenseman, standing a 6-1, 219lbs, he can lean on and use his body well on most shifts. A plus is that Cole does not shy away from the physical aspect of the games, stepping up in the corners and behind the net to make the proper plays. He also has the ability to move the puck effectively, finding the proper pass out of his own end, and chipping the puck out of high danger areas. These qualities were a reason why Cole earned a regular shift with the Penguins during their drive to two championships.

However, a downside is the fact that Cole is not an effective powerplay player. With John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Heiskanen, and Julius Honka on the roster, though, it’s not a skillset Dallas needs to specifically target this offseason either.

The 29-year-old Cole had a cap hit of $2.1 million per season on his last contract. The terms he might command on the open market this summer could be in the universe of $2.5 million per season or more with a term of 3 to 4 years on his next deal. This signing could give the Stars a shutdown, experienced defenseman at the bottom of the lineup to pair with Stephen Johns, and act as an upgrade over Greg Pateryn. The Stars have a wealth of talent at the top of their blueline — upgrading the bottom pair would be a breath of fresh air.

Goaltender: Anton Khudobin (Boston Bruins)

Stats: 147- 67W-51L-16T-6SO-2.47GAA- .915SP

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Stars need a solid backup goaltender to pair with incumbent starter Ben Bishop. As Bishop’s late season injury and Lehtonen’s performance down the stretch faltered behind a team that didn’t help themselves either, the Stars are due for a much needed upgrade at that position. Enter Anton Khudobin, who proved to have a solid season in 2017-18 with the Boston Bruins backing up Tukka Rask. Khudobin played quite a bit this past season, be it giving Rask a breather or filling in for injury. In his 31 games played this past season, he recorded a 16-6-7 record with a 2.56 goals against average and a save percentage of .913. Solid numbers for the Bruins number two, and a big part of how the Bruins made the playoffs out of the tough Atlantic Division.

Khudobin is not an extremely large net-minder, clocking in at 5’11, 195lbs, but he does make up for it in being an athletic goaltender. Khudobin has shown the ability to consistently stop the puck and at times, step in to be the number one guy for a club staying afloat through injuries, etc. He is also capable of putting up good performances when called upon in pressure situations, showcasing his talent at the highest level. His skillset speaks of an ideal backup, who can be called upon to win games for his club, and his limited duty can shield him from his inconsistency issues.

Currently Khudobin is operating at an annual cap hit of $1.2 million, and given his performance with the Bruins, he could command a little more as backup. I don’t anticipate Jim Nill overpaying for a backup goaltender. Signing Khudobin could give the Stars a true backup goaltender, who could step in and win games for the Stars in order to give Ben Bishop the required rest to keep him healthy. If the price is right, the Stars would be wise to pull the trigger on this goaltender.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Stars need to improve their roster from a season ago, and it is painfully evident given the quality of teams in the Central Division that this year that it won’t be any easier to win. With the top end talent already on the roster, the Stars need to add complimentary pieces on defense and in goal, and a top six gun on offense. By potentially adding JVR, Cole, and Khudobin, the club addresses all three areas that need upgrading. The good news for the Stars is that, none of the moves really break the bank with the existing RFA’s and Tyler Seguin extension on the horizon this summer.