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Free Agency Primer: Filling the Gaps

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Free agency is days away, which means the Stars have to turn around and address the roster gaps. Where can they improve, where are the gaps, and which ones are a priority for the defending Western Conference champions?

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The year 2020 is a train that just continues to roll through the station, so to speak.

The Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League are passengers like the rest of us to a destination with no clear arrival time. Which makes this upcoming free agency and off-season one of the most uncertain and interesting times in recent memory.

As Taylor laid out in her piece addressing the Stars’ cap situation, the Stars may find themselves spending below the cap in 2020-21. There are many factors to this new reality for a franchise that just tore through the Western Conference for its place in the Stanley Cup Final. The team’s ownership is dealing with external business and economic realities, the league is dealing with the realities of lost revenues and increased expenditures from its recent playoff format, and the world as a whole is at the whim of a deadly virus for the foreseeable future.

Which, of course, all leads us back to the realities of the Stars’ roster construction. A roster that came within two wins of a Stanley Cup championship. With all the good that came with this surprise run to the Final, coming up short does highlight some of the shortcomings on the roster. To make matters more interesting is how the Stars might go about filling in those gaps.

What do the Stars do to fill gaps in the bottom six? What about the need on the third defense pairing? Finally, Anton Khudobin, the goaltender that helped will the Stars to brink of glory, is an unrestricted free agent. Does this open the door for Jake Oettinger? Questions abound, which will be discussed at length. However, first we must analyze the gaps that need filling before we start to play the game of roster hypotheticals.

The Forwards

The forward group at first glance looks to be pretty cut-and-dry as the Stars go into the off-season. We will not delve into who is coming and who is going when it comes to contracts that extend beyond 2019-20 because frankly, nobody has any clue what is about to happen when free agency opens on October 9th. It would be ludicrous to play armchair GM at this point in time. What fans do know is that Mattias Janmark and Corey Perry are the UFAs for the Stars in the forward group.

This would leave two gaps in the bottom six of the lineup right off of the jump. The Stars would likely need to find either an internal or external replacement for both players going into next season. When it comes to Janmark (if he leaves), the Stars would need to replace his speed and possession strengths. Much was rightly made about Janmark’s finishing abilities, but his speed and possession in the zone was valuable to the Stars’ cycle. However, the finishing ability is something the Stars will likely look for in a possible replacement — a player that can give the Stars anywhere from 10-15 goals in the same role that Janmark served.

Look for the Stars to also go younger on a possible Janmark replacement because younger means cheaper, and means more cap flexibility. The same principles apply to the possible Corey Perry replacement. The Stars might opt for a younger player who has that physical edge that Perry brought, but with more overall speed to their game. Look for this player to slide into the fourth line and engage physically, all the while giving the Stars the ability to roll four lines that can play with pace.

Overall, the top six for the Stars’ forward group should essentially remain the same as it currently stands. The Stars will be looking for a big rebound year from Tyler Seguin, as he enters the second year of his extension contract. When it comes to increased goal-scoring in the lineup, it’s fairly clear who will shoulder that expectation. Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz will be expected to take another step forward, which means increasing their overall offensive output across the board. The Stars seem ready to essentially begin the transition of sliding these two young players in with Tyler Seguin in terms of scoring.

Which brings us to Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Joe Pavelski, the older statesmen if you will. Pavelski will be looking for a rebound year in the regular season after finding his scoring touch in the postseason. Pavelski plays the game from the hashmarks in, so look for him to score more goals. The biggest question marks (gaps) in the top six are Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. How much do they have left in the tank? If Benn and Radulov can chip in with average to above average offensive seasons, coupled with an increase in scoring for the aforementioned players, the Stars’ top six looks to be a strength. With their contract situations, it’s a safe bet the Stars know this as well.

When it comes down to it, the Stars forward group is as straightforward as it looks on paper. The fourth line and supplemental roles will be counted on to be moderate upgrades from their predecessors, while being able to rely on the things those that came before did well. The FCC checking line (Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, Andrew Cogliano) will most likely go into next season as a unit that largely stays intact. Lastly, look for the Stars to also place a high degree of importance on depth forwards who can kill penalties. As forwards like Faksa and Comeau fell to injury, so did the penalty kill. That was the difference in the Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning

Third Defensive Pairing

The defense roster for the Stars is as locked in as anywhere in the league when it comes to their top four players. Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, and Esa Lindell are as solid as they come.

Which is why the third pairing is going be so important moving forward for the Stars. Andrej Sekera is the lone UFA on this defense sheet (not counting Roman Polak) and fans have no news if he is returning to the team or not. Stephen Johns, who slotted in next to Sekera, was injured in the first round and did not return to the playoffs. We’re not going to speculate on his injury or a return timetable for him. Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley did great work filling the gap, but it’s safe to say the Stars will still be looking to do something for that third pairing.

If Johns is healthy for the 2020-21 season, it could be as simple as handing the third pairing to him and Joel Hanley, given how well Hanley played in the Final. If that is the case, the Stars could probably find a supplemental piece to fill in as the seventh defenseman. The Stars can also choose to stay internal with this situation and go with Thomas Harley. Let’s just say the Stars have options to work with on the third pairing, and none of them are anything to sniff at in terms of capability and skill.

With how strong the top four defense is for the team, the third pair will be asked to do what a third paring is asked to do: play 10-15 minutes of clean hockey and let the horses do the rest. It will be important for the Stars to properly address this situation because injuries happen and players will be asked to slot up.

The questions that really face the third pairing are these: Can Hanley handle consistent NHL minutes? How ready is Harley for the NHL? Given the Stars’ cap situation, it can be argued that the team will look to go internal with this solution to save a few dollars. It also helps that the Stars have a good stable of defensemen ready to step in if needed.

Goaltending

Anton Khudobin really created a unique situation for the Stars going into free agency this fall. The veteran goaltender went off in the playoffs, making more saves than any Stars’ goaltender in history en route to the Stanley Cup Final. He was tremendous. With the injury history of Ben Bishop, the team just might have to spend what it takes to bring him back, or find a suitable replacement.

This is probably the biggest question for the Stars in free agency. I’m inclined to put a lot of weight into the forward group, but in this league, a team needs two goaltenders. The Stars only made the Final because of it. The questions then becomes what do they do?

The water is murky when it comes to the goaltending situation, since nobody really has any sense of what is going to happen. Khudobin played himself into a raise, but Bishop is still the number one goaltender for this team. Then there is Oettinger, who backed up for 98% of the playoff run and played a scoreless period in the Final. Is he ready to back up for three years?

Whatever the Stars end up doing, they need to make sure they nail this decision. As Taylor mentioned, if the Stars bring back Khudobin, it probably makes them a cap team going into next year. Is this something the Stars want to do with the economic uncertainty surrounding the league and sports in general? The cheapest option is Oettinger, but then they run the risk of switching up the normal path of a young goaltender’s maturation — a goaltender that the Stars desperately need to pan out if their future is to continue to progress forward.

The gaps on the Dallas roster exist and they were exposed by a Tampa Bay team that was simply better at different aspects of the game. The good thing for the Stars is that the gaps are not franchise-altering holes that will take years to fill. The Stars need supplemental pieces that will act as upgrades to players who are leaving, injured, or priced out. In the COVID-19 world, how those roles will be filled and with who is ambiguous at this time. What is not is that the gaps must be properly filled in if the Stars look to take the next step of winning four Stanley Cup Final games in 2021.