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The Kids Are Coming

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In years past, the Stars approached free agency with an open pocketbook aimed at the game’s top targets. This year could be a different story with a crop of young prospects knocking on the door for a promotion.

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

In the past two free agency periods (2018 and 2019) the Dallas Stars have opened the checkbook, ready to land the game’s biggest and most expensive players. In 2018, that player was John Tavares, who had Dallas on his shortlist of franchises that he would take an interview with. After the Stars’ second-round exit in 2019, the team was able to woo Joe Pavelski away from San Jose and Tampa Bay, with an expensive three-year contract.

It was all part of a philosophy from an ownership and front office that seemed bent on spending to the cap to maximize the potential of the on-ice product. Given the Stars’ past two playoff performances, which includes their Stanley Cup Final appearance just days ago, it is hard to argue with the results.

The free agent additions of Pavelski, Alexander Radulov in 2017, and Anton Khudobin helped propel the Stars to the cusp of a championship. The Stars also relied on free agency to fill depth roles with the signings of Corey Perry in 2019 and Blake Comeau in 2018. Those are two players who played key roles in the playoff run, with Comeau playing a major part on the most effective checking line in the Western Conference.

However, times could be changing when it comes to free agency for the Stars in 2020. Defending Big D has outlined the Stars’ cap situation and the UFAs and gaps in the lineup. Beginning early on Friday, October 9th, how this roster will be constructed will come into view. With the present economic and cap realities for the Stars, it could be a safe bet that the franchise will look internally when it comes to filling holes left by departed players. With a stable of prospects that appear ready to slot in on opening night, the Stars could be hedging their bets on the kids being ready to play.

In the playoffs, and specifically the Stanley Cup Final, the Dallas Stars had to count on their black aces to make considerable contributions. In fact, the Stars don’t advance past the second round without a historical contribution from Joel Kiviranta. His hat trick in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal against the Colorado Avalanche, underscored the overall significance of the black aces’ impact.

When the final buzzer on the Final sounded, the Stars had logged 31 total man games from those who were never supposed to play. Kiviranta and Joel Hanley buoyed the total with 14 and 12 games played respectively. Nick Caamano played his lone four games in the Final, filling in for Blake Comeau and drawing critical shifts throughout the games. Then the two prospects whom the Stars have hedged their future on — Thomas Harley and Jake Oettinger — made their NHL debuts in the bubble. Harley played only once, in the round robin against Colorado, but Oettinger was called into duty to mop up third periods in the Western Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final.

These are not small deals, especially for young players as important to the future as the established players on this roster. Overall, the black aces contributed six goals and two assists for eight points in their 31 games. Of those goals, Kiviranta’s hat trick saved the postseason, while Kiviranta and Hanley each tallied a goal in the Stars’ Game 1 win in the Stanley Cup Final.

So what all does this mean for 2020-21?

It could be argued that the Stars can replace players like Mattias Janmark and Corey Perry with players like Kiviranta and Caamano. Those two are younger players who can replace and even act as upgrades in the speed department for the Stars. Nobody is going to mistake Kiviranta for an elite goal-scorer, but with five goals in the playoff, is it a safe bet to think he could net 10-12 goals for the Stars? That would be a bump over Janmarks’ totals, while keeping the speed and possession strengths that Janmark brought, by sliding in Kiviranta, who possesses both of those qualities.

Corey Perry is where it becomes a little unclear. Can Caamano bring that physical edge that Perry brought, while chipping in a bit more offensively? That is the bet the Stars will have to try and hedge when it comes to signing an outside free agent or promoting from within. Then there is the looming questions of Jason Robertson and Ty Dellandrea and their development. Are these two players ready to slot in and eat NHL minutes in the bottom six?

I’d argue the best place for both players is with the Texas Stars for Robertson and the Flint Firebirds for Dellandrea. At 20 years old, Dellandrea might need a bit more time to mature before he can handle NHL minutes on the fourth line. This fact is even further highlighted by the fact that Jason Dickinson and Radek Faksa are clogging the center portion for the Stars at the moment.

Robertson is where it becomes a bit more interesting, as he appears to be a player that could add that punch down the lineup if he is deployed properly. The only problem for Robertson is if the coaching staff can trust him to play a bottom-six role, as the Stars place a high degree of value on defensive accountability. As fans saw with Gurianov, scoring goals isn't going to guarantee ice time if the player can’t properly defend and make the gritty play.

At the end of the day, it was a nice sign that Dellandrea and Robertson were in the bubble as black aces. It likely indicates that their development is on track, as they displaced players in Cedar Park who had NHL experience. Look for those two players to find ice when injuries occur, but it isn't likely they serve as depth replacements to start the year.

Defensively the Stars could be working with a good problem when it comes to their third pairing on defense. The top four for the Stars is established, the most set in stone part of the roster. The third pairing is where the biggest question mark appears when it comes to signing outside help or going internal.

Joel Hanley filled in perfectly for Stephen Johns and then Taylor Fedun when both went down with injury. His pairing with Andrej Sekera gave the Stars a third pairing that could handle hard minutes in the Stanley Cup Final. However, Sekera is a UFA beginning next week, so there will need to be a decision and soon.

Enter Joel Hanley and Thomas Harley.

Harley is 19 years old and has one NHL game to his credit. In his lone appearance he didn’t look totally out of place, but it was easy to tell that the speed was a steep adjustment at times. It didn’t help that he debuted against the fastest team in the playoffs in Colorado, but trial by fire is not always a terrible thing. The question for the Stars then becomes do they think he is ready to handle third-pair minutes as a 19-year-old? If Johns returns to anchor the third pairing, Harley might receive a hard look to make the roster out of camp. That would most likely mean that Hanley serves as the seventh defenseman for the Stars.

That’s the best case scenario.

First, Harley is either going to play in the NHL or he isn’t. There is no way the Stars are going to keep him as the seventh defensemen watching from the press box. It would risk losing a year off of his entry-level contract, which is something the Stars would be very reluctant to do. The Stars have to decide if they want to keep him up for his rookie year or send him back to his junior team in Mississauga.

Note: The NHL has an agreement with the CHL (and thereby the OHL) that blocks prospects from playing in the AHL under the age of 20 years old. The agreement allows for a “tryout” of 10 games. In that time, the Stars could allow themselves the ability to give Harley a harder look than training camp could provide.

Secondly, a lot of this hinges on what happens with Johns.

If Johns is healthy, then it’s fairly simple that the Stars go completely internal with their staffing of the third pairing. Hanley and the promise of Harley have made this a pretty straightforward decision for the Stars. It could be argued the Stars only look externally if they believe Hanley and Harley are not up to the task over a long, condensed season.

In that instance, they will be looking for a veteran presence the can steady the third pairing with Harley or Hanley, and kill some penalties. Also, making the correct move on the third pairing will be key to determining how successful the Stars are, because injuries on the back end happen and happen often.

As discussed, Anton Khudobin has put the Stars in a difficult spot when it comes to goaltending. If Ben Bishop is healthy, it can be safely assumed that Khudobin acts as the backup in the playoffs. If that happens, then Khudobin is looking at a moderate raise and could comfortably find himself coming back to Texas.

As it turned out, Bishop’s health was a major question mark in the bubble, and so Khudobin played 99.9% of the playoffs, and led the Stars to the Final. In doing so, he might have earned himself a raise that is too rich for the Stars to give. On the flip side, the Stars might also have no choice in bringing back Khudobin with the as-yet-unknown status of Bishop.

For the most part, the question of what to do with the goaltending is really the one that could steer the Stars to an external signing. Do the Stars trust Jake Oettinger to serve as a backup that can fill the void if Bishop falls to injury? How does this affect the Stars in a condensed season? Can Oettinger be trusted to continue in his development while playing heavier than usual minutes for a backup?

The argument could be made that Oettinger needs more time in the minors to develop. The Stars never wanted Oettinger to act as the backup in the playoffs; it really was the last resort. While it did serve as good experience — one that could serve the young netminder well in the future — the future isn’t here yet when it comes to goaltending for the Stars.

Even if Dallas can’t re-sign Khudobin, look for the Stars to go externally in finding his replacement. In the NHL, a good team with Stanley Cup aspirations will need two goaltenders who can win games when called upon. There’s no doubt Oettinger could win games, but winning games consistently is where the question lies. With Bishop’s injury history, that could be all the difference for the Stars in a season where the backup will be as important as the starter.

There's no doubt that the Stars would most likely to bring back Khudobin, which could make this a moot point. However, the reality is that Khudobin has probably made himself a richer man than he would’ve been just three months ago. Which makes this the most critical move facing the Stars in this off-season.

The Dallas Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final on the shoulders of young players, veteran contributions, and black aces who filled the void when called upon. For their efforts, some of the aces have most likely earned a promotion to full-time duty. To the credit of the Stars’ scouting and front office, their draft selections and free agent signings on the back end have probably saved them some money in the short term. It will be interesting to see how the Stars marry the mix of signing veterans or promoting the kids.

Either way, the Stars have created a nice problem, in that it seems as if their prospects are about ready to graduate.