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Stars Should Give Bubble Forwards A Longer Look Before Risking Waivers

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A new coach and a new system could bring about new results

Pittsburgh Penguins v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Yesterday Defending Big D’s Ann Atkinson penned an excellent article about Dallas Stars defenseman Julius Honka, expounding about how the young blueliner is now getting a fresh start under new head coach Jim Montgomery following a very disappointing year under former bench boss Ken Hitchcock.

As Ann wrote:

“Hitchcock’s system has some strengths, and it’s obvious that the Stars defense did improve last season. But playing a stay-at-home defensive, shot suppression-heavy game never suited the Stars roster much, and Honka was definitely one of the players that got lost in the system.”

I don’t think that any Stars fan would disagree with that analysis.

Where there does seem to be disagreement, however, is the question of whether or not other Dallas players could get a fresh start (or a much-needed kickstart to their game) under Montgomery and his new system.

There’s a very real chance that Honka bounces back and truly finds his game this season and beyond — but what about others?

With all due respect to Hitchcock and everything he accomplished in his storied career, it’s safe to say that his return to the Stars for 2017-18 was a failure. Sure, the team played half-decent hockey and finished within striking distance of a playoff spot, but that wasn’t nearly good enough given the talent at the team’s disposal.

Why did the Stars fail? Because the pairing between coaching and players was never the right fit. After a few years of firewagon hockey under Lindy Ruff, including one very successful season that was sunk by poor goaltending, the Stars just never quite took to Hitchcock’s slower, more reserved, more defensive-oriented system.

Beyond the results in the standings, you could even see out on the ice that the Stars had lost their mojo. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, something was off. Things didn’t click.

This problem was seen on an individual basis all throughout the roster. Indeed, Honka wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit Hitchcock’s system or wasn’t used properly within it. Even more concerning, Honka wasn’t the only youngster who looked worse in 2017-18 than they did in 2016-17, something that shouldn’t happen from a development standpoint.

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to the topic of waivers.

The NHL preseason is underway, and like every NHL preseason, there is an abundance of discussion and debate about which players will or won’t make their respective teams. Making matters more complicated — as it always does — is the waiver rule, which presents the possibility of players of a certain age of being plucked by other clubs if their teams attempt to send them to the AHL.

Right now the Stars are knee deep in this predicament, and they’re facing a doozy of a dilemma. The organization has 14 forwards who would have to pass through waivers in order to be sent to the AHL’s Texas Stars (15 if you count the injured Martin Hanzal, who will be back sometime in the future), while up-and-comers Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov have looked good in preseason appearances — possibly good enough to make the roster.

The heart of the issue is simple: in order for Hintz and/or Gurianov to make the team, Dallas would have to send another forward (or two) through waivers and to the AHL.

One possible solution to this problem is quite straightforward: the best players in preseason make the team, regardless of waiver-eligibility status. The team needs to ice the best roster possible, the thinking goes, and sending players through waivers is an acceptable risk if it comes to that.

And, as DBD’s Managing Editor Taylor Baird recently wrote about, it’s quite rare that waiver claims are actually made on eligible players. The overwhelming majority of players pass through without so much as a hiccup.

At the same time, however, the argument could be made (and, well, I’m about to make it) that the Stars should take a more nuanced approach to the matter at hand and not take the risk of sending anyone through waivers (at least, not yet. You’ll see what I mean).

To help lay this out, I’ve broken things down into a few separate sections.

The Risks

The single most important thing to do with any waiver situation is to analyze each player’s situation individually to determine how likely or unlikely it would be for that player to get claimed, and just how much value would be lost if it happens.

Sometimes the potential loss is nothing to really worry about. Last season the Stars lost forward Adam Cracknell on waivers to the New York Rangers and the impact was minimal. Why? Even though Cracknell was a popular player and a good fit on the team the season prior, he was 32 years old and a 4th-line forward. His minutes were replaced by better, younger forwards in Gemel Smith, Remi Elie and others.

At the same time, though, losing a player on waivers can really sting. The Stars found this out the hard way last year when they tried to assign defenseman Patrik Nemeth to the minors, only to see him get claimed by the division-rival Colorado Avalanche. Nemeth found his footing in Colorado, earned a spot on the team’s second defensive pairing and helped the Avs make the postseason — at the expense of the Stars. He also signed a one-year extension with his new club, so the Stars are going to be seeing a lot more of him this season.

If Dallas loses a player on waivers and that individual goes on to be successful, that not only weakens the Stars — it also makes another team stronger.

The Guys On The Bubble Are High Waiver Risks

What makes things so difficult for the Stars right now is that the players who would be the main candidates to get sent through waivers — Smith, Elie, Brett Ritchie and Jason Dickinson — are all high risks of getting claimed. Despite how it may seem at times to Stars fans, these four players likely all still have value around the league, and also have the potential to hurt Dallas if they end up on other teams. In other words, these guys are closer to Nemeth than they are to Cracknell.

Taking a look at each one individually:

Gemel Smith — Smith performed well in a limited role last season, especially when you look at some of the underlying numbers (such as Corsi-for percentage and points-per-60). His cap hit is also barely above league minimum, which makes him especially attractive to teams with salary cap issues. And when you factor in some solid play during the preseason, the argument could be made (and I’m making it here) that Smith has earned his spot in Dallas and shouldn’t be a waiver candidate at all.

Remi Elie — As a young player with size, speed and 90 games of NHL experience, at least one or two other teams would probably jump at the chance to add Elie to their bottom two lines. Like Smith, he would come cheap in terms of cap hit. Being a former 2nd-round pick helps, too.

Brett Ritchie — Another former 2nd rounder, Ritchie is only one season removed from scoring 16 goals, so other teams know he can put the puck in the net. Despite the NHL getting faster in recent years, players that bring Ritchie’s skill set still hold a lot of value.

Jason Dickinson — A former 1st-round pick in 2013, rumors have also circulated in the past that he’s a player other teams have targeted and tried to pry away from the Stars via trade. As such, Dickinson probably holds the most value out of all of the aforementioned names.

The Potential Reward For Playing It Safe

Remember how this article started, talking about how Honka isn’t the only one who could benefit from the fresh start offered by Montgomery and his new system? What if the same is true for these players as well?

How Elie, Ritchie and Dickinson played last year was certainly disappointing, but as mentioned earlier, the whole Stars team seemed to be out of tune under Hitchcock. All of these players have succeeded either at lower levels or in the NHL itself, and all are also still young enough (Ritchie is the elder statesman at 25) that they could bounce back and offer more out on the ice.

What if Ritchie scores 20 goals? What if Elie learns more impactful ways to use his combination of size and speed? What if Dickinson figures out how to put all of his tools together and becomes a true 200-foot threat? All of these scenarios are possible, both for Dallas if Montgomery’s system works and each player is utilized to the best of their abilities, as well as for other teams. Giving away a valuable player like that, the way that the Stars gave away Nemeth, could have big repercussions, especially if the team struggles or faces mounting injuries.

A Possible Solution

So, let’s say that the Stars decide to not waive anyone and send Hintz and Gurianov down to the AHL regardless of what happens during the rest of the preseason. What are the implications? What happens next?

Luckily, nothing has to be set in stone. After all, sending players through waivers down to the minors can happen throughout a season, not just before it begins. That means that the Stars would have more time to evaluate all of the individual players before having to take the risk of sending anyone through waivers.

As valuable as preseason is, what happens there isn’t definitive. The regular season is still a different challenge. Furthermore, some players might need a little more time to adjust to a new system and a new coach.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the Stars set Game 20 on their schedule as a checkpoint of sorts to take stock of the situation. Who is looking good under Montgomery after this much time has passed? Who isn’t? How are Hintz and Gurianov playing down in the AHL? Are there injuries?

By waiting a little longer to gather more information, the Stars would be able to make a more informed decision, something that makes a lot of sense since so much changed over the summer.

Are there risks to this plan of action as well? Certainly.

By waiting past the initial rush of roster reassignments before the season begins it’s more likely that a player would get claimed on waivers, as injuries will have started to mount throughout the league and teams will be looking for substitutes. However, any player getting waived into the season is probably in that situation for a reason and has lost at least some of their value. Teams would be a little skittish to claim someone who is struggling and being demoted.

There’s also the chance that the team, overall, will miss the contributions of Hintz or Gurianov, with the other players not helping the team do enough to win. This seems a little unlikely, given that a waiver-exempt call-up would probably only being playing Bottom 6 minutes to begin with. How much difference would there be among any of these players if they’re only on the ice for 10-12 minutes per night? And there’s no need to wait too long if things aren’t working; if the Stars stumbled out of the gate with five straight losses then, well, an immediate roster change would be the best course of action.

The Stars have a lot of pressure on them to have a big season, and that means every decision is going to count. Considering the potential rewards of avoiding waivers outweigh the risks, it makes sense for the organization to take their time to ensure that they get this one right.