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Free Agency Grades: How the Dallas Stars Stack Up after July 1st

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No Zuccarello, no Stralman, and one of the most loathed opponents in Dallas made July 1st a bit of an unexpected update for the Stars. How do they stack up now?

San Jose Sharks v Anaheim Ducks
“Wait, the Islanders did what now?”
Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

But underneath we had a fear of flying

Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying

We took the chance

Like we were dancing our last dance

***

Well, the Stars are going for it. They’ve spent the last couple of summers spending to the cap one way or another, but this time around, they’ve put all their eggs in the proverbial basket, signing three veterans on July 1st to $10 million AAV deals in total—all of whom are 33 years or older.

Put another way: the three NHLers signed on Monday are now the three oldest players on the team. So, yeah. There are “win now” moves, and there are “I really hope we win now because most mid-thirties hockey players aren’t built to win later” moves. This isn’t just spending money instead of conserving assets; July 1st, this year, was Dallas going all-in on the best talent available, right here, right now. Jim Nill found some guys who could jam open their competitive window long enough for the remaining prime years of Klingberg and Seguin to carry the Stars deep into the playoffs, and he pounced.

It always feels good to have your team do something, especially when one of those somethings scored 38 goals last year. Still, not all somethings are created equal, so it falls to us to parse these most recent firmware updates to the best of our abilities.

Wes already gave us a breakdown this morning of how the Stars have improved by bringing in new players, so let’s double down on that and grade each of the Stars’ big three moves yesterday. Then we’ll give Jim Nill an overall grade for free agency management. Sound good? Good. This is a very original idea for an article, and frankly I would like you click the PayPal donate button at the bottom to encourage similar originality in the future. It is the least you could do.

Joe Pavelski

Joe Pavelski is the oldest of the three older UFAs signed Monday. He is also, by far, expected to be the best. He had an outstanding 2018-19 in San Jose, as even some very slightly less-impressive shot rates (for him) didn’t stop his production:

This move is the sort of thing the Stars needed last summer. After the fantastic addition of Alex Radulov (who drives play just as vigorously while scoring), Pavelski gives the Stars a true second-line threat in a way that even Mats Zuccarello couldn’t do on his own.

In fact, as we discussed in the playoffs, Roope Hintz’s emergence was just as crucial as Zuccarello’s addition. The diminutive winger absolutely made the Stars better in just about every way, but Joe Pavelski is the sort of player who can score goals on any line, even at 35 years old. He and Zucc probably add a similar amount of wins to Dallas, but in very different ways. When you add the increased flexibility of Pavelski’s contract length and terms, it’s easy to see why Jim Nill chose to keep his first-round pick next year.

The caution flags are there, though. Pavelski scored the second-highest goal total of his career last year, and you’d be hard-pressed to expect the same thing from a Stars team that barely made the playoffs in one of the last three seasons. Still, the Stars have a similar caliber of dynamite duo on the blue line that the Sharks do (or did), and they also have a dangerous top-six (now) that will keep the other teams scrambling to hide their less-capable defensive players. Even when you account for the effects of time and age, Pavelski seems like as solid a bet to age well as you could find for that price and term. When you combine his lack of a NMC that would make the expansion draft trickier down the road, it’s hard not to love this signing.

It’s not like he’s a power-play weapon who will need to be sheltered, either. Pavelski scored an outrageous 22 even-strength goals last year per Evolving-Hockey, which is more than Zuccarello, Radulov or even Perry (21 in ‘15-16) have done in the last four seasons. So, for those worrying that the Stars just traded Spezza’s $7.5 million salary for a similar player, those concerns seem unfounded. If Pavelski declines more rapidly than you’d like, he still seems quite unlikely to decline in the same way Spezza did. Coaches love him, and he’s got the tools to earn that affection. If he does nothing else (and he will do much), his world-class eye-hand coordination allows Jamie Benn to move away from the net-front on the power play, unleashing his wrist shot as an additional threat.

Sure, there’s risk, as there is with any acquisition. You risk that the player will decline too rapidly, that he won’t reach his potential, or that his established norms were a mirage in a different system. Pavelski’s age moves the needle up a couple clicks on those danger readouts, but he has been a historically durable player, and it’s not like the Stars are really trying to project his third contract year. They’re hoping to get a great player now and maybe next year, and getting players who have been great (or even elite) is always the best place to start. Hintz and Dickinson aren’t Logan Couture and Evander Kane, but Pavelski still seems about as good a bet to bring the goals-ing as was reasonably available on the market, and the Stars got him for a reasonable price. It’s hard to ask for much more in free agency.

Grade: A

Corey Perry

I had a long conversation with my brother about this signing, and I think the fan reaction to Perry is good place to start. First, I don’t blame a single fan who was upset by the Perry signing. I really don’t. Perry’s reputation aside, his specific spearing incident with Jamie Benn in the playoffs on top of the moments in that series with Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski were plenty to cement his reputation as a hated villain in Stars fandom. You can’t expect fans to just forget that, especially considering how the Sean Avery signing played out last decade.

When you add in Perry’s tumbling production over the last few years, it’s also harder to sell fans on the whole “root for laundry” thing. Yes, fans will learn to love any player that comes in and becomes *their* pest, but Perry seems just as likely to be Eric Lindros in a Stars uniform as Claude Lemieux. (And did anyone even like Lemieux when he was here, for that matter?)

You can’t market to fan’s emotions and hype the personal connection to (and against) certain players only to turn around and admonish them for their hesitance to put their team’s sweater over the head they once wanted to punch. There is a certain emotional cost to signing a player like Perry, somewhere on the spectrum of being slightly less self-righteous about the virtues of your own team to being outright ashamed of your team’s players (again, Avery is the low point here). Yes, you ultimately just want your team to succeed, but there are optimal conditions under which your team does so. Allowing for the somewhat mercenary nature of professional sports as a whole, you’d still like to see a team made up of discrete parts that you appreciate uniquely, not just for their participation in the whole.

A quick anecdote: I was raised as a Dodgers fan, and the only MLB jersey I’ve ever owned is a home Clayton Kershaw uniform. I’ve been a massive fan of his since he was drafted, and it’s been one of the most wonderful baseball fan experiences of my life to watch him turn into the best pitcher in the game for a sustained period of time.

That’s what made it so incredibly painful to watch their last two World Series losses, particularly in 2017, when Kershaw was among the many pitchers who got decimated by MLB’s newly juiced baseball and the Astros’ tank-built lineup. Just there would’ve been something special about seeing Josh Hamilton and Michael Young win the World Series in 2011, so also would it have been as good as it gets to see Kershaw lead the Dodgers to their first World Series victory since 1988. Yes, we root for laundry, but we fall in love with the players who wear it. And love can never be a mandatory response.

On the more clinical side, I will say that Perry could either have a resurgence led by some solid power play contributions, or he could continue to tail off. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised either way. Maybe playing for an awful team with a bad coach made him look more cooked these past couple years than he really is, but the best you can say is that the Stars aren’t risking much, unless you count a declining veteran blocking a better young forward as a risk. And realistically, the Stars will be able to make room if a player demands it. Perry might still have a good year left in him, but even if he doesn’t, this was the sort of gamble the Stars were going to be forced to make, what with their limited cap space before the Hanzal LTIR move takes effect on opening night. It’s not a bad gamble, even if I’m less optimistic about it than some. It’s a smart-ish UFA move, which is tough to do with all the stupid money that can get thrown around on July 1st. The Stars are a desirable team for players like Perry and Pavelski, and Nill cashed in on that. Good on him. Still, the emotional impact for me, as a fan, takes this signing down from a B+, but it’s still a solidly above-average move, and it gives the Stars better options on the power play after their top forwards than they’ve had in a long time.

Grade: B-

Andrej Sekera

Sekera has fewer performance bonuses available in his contract, and that’s, ah, not really surprising.

Now, the caveat here is that Sekera reportedly looked much better at Worlds after recovering from tearing both his ACL and Achilles. Sekera in a sheltered role also has more upside, for my money, than a lot of the Stars’ options on the third pairing. His last two full seasons were a bit more reassuring, if you don’t mind projecting based off 2016-17 instead of more recent history. Sekera can play power play minutes, though it’s hard to see where he’d slot in with Lindell and Heiskanen ahead of him on that depth chart. Overall, Sekera strikes me as the sort of insurance move that Roman Polák would be if we didn’t all know that Polák will be playing every night if he’s healthy, because that’s how coaches have used him, regardless of effect.

Instead, this addition is clearly for depth, or perhaps preventative maintenance, if you will. Ben Gleason might turn into something, for sure. In the meantime, the Stars have some buffer between the NHL wear-and-tear on their regulars and the core of Texas’ defense, uh, corps.

So, Sekera is some insurance on the third-pairing, but what sort? The smaller counterpart to Oleksiak’s larger frame for matchup purposes on a given night is one thought, or perhaps it’s just as simply as the Stars don’t want to have two righties on the third pairing if they can avoid it. It gives them options, but where Perry doesn’t seem to be blocking anyone, it’s hard to see how Sekera won’t make the NHL path of players like Gavin Bayreuther a little tougher. Where Perry’s addition has clear upside, Sekera’s potential at this point in his career seems a bit less rosy. Sure, depth is always good if it doesn’t cost you anything, but this seems more like depth for depth’s sake. I guess it makes sense (especially on a Jim Nill club) to pack your defensive depth to the gills after the decimation of the Dallas defense corps we saw last November, but I have a hard time not looking at Sekera and seeing an older, more expensive, less-effective version of Connor Carrick. Make of that what you will.

Grade: C

Overall, I think the pieces calling the Stars a “legitimate cup contender” are a bit premature. Pavelski is a move the Stars had to make, but until we see what Stephen Johns has to offer, the Stars are still going to need Vezina-caliber goaltending from Ben Bishop to threaten the likes of Colorado atop the Central Division.

Still, Jim Nill’s job was to make the team better. He found scoring help, and the less likely contributions from Perry and Sekera coming off their buyouts don’t negate the truly great addition of Pavelski. We aren’t grading the Stars’ drafting and development here, but only looking inside the shopping bag of Jim Nill. Maybe he got some items that aren’t massively helpful, but he still got two of them on sale, and the best one at a fair price.

Overall Dallas Stars Free Agency Grade: B+