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As Trade Deadline Nears, What Approach Will Stars Take?

To buy or not to buy, that is the question.

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NHL: APR 20 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Stars at Predators Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NHL trade deadline this season is Monday, February 24th. That’s just over two weeks away, and teams are starting to fall into the buyer or seller categories as standings within the division and conference shift.

As of Thursday, February 6th at lunch time, the Stars appear to be firmly locked into a playoff position. In the West, the current cutoff for the second Wild Card position is about 91 points, as set by the Calgary Flames. Dallas is on pace for 101 points, 10 points clear of a Wild Card spot (and just two points behind the Colorado Avalanche for home ice advantage in the first round matchup between the two clubs).

Projections are just that, though. Based on how teams have performed to-date this season, the Nashville Predators (90 projected points), Chicago Blackhawks (88 points), Winnipeg Jets (87 points), and Minnesota Wild (85 points) would find themselves within striking distance of a playoff position. These are the clubs in the West, along with all of those in current playoff positions, that the Stars will be in competition with to improve their roster by acquiring a player at the trade deadline.

So what are the Stars working with at this time of year?

Trade History & 2020 Draft Picks

Over the last few seasons, the majority of the Stars’ trades have been flipping a player for another player. The big exception to that were the trades involving Dallas’ second and third round picks for this summer’s draft:

*The 2020 second round pick Dallas owned was sent to the Vegas Golden Knights along with just-drafted goaltender Dylan Ferguson in exchange for defenseman Marc Methot during the expansion draft. That trade was made in 2017, signaling that Nill is not afraid to trade pieces in the distant future for perceived help in the immediate future. That will be the only way that draft picks could likely be included in a trade this season, because the Stars have only their first, fourth, fifth, and sixth round picks this summer. That’s one of the smallest draft capital years for Nill as general manager in Dallas. If anything, the team is likely to be looking to get a second or third round pick back in a move, but that’s likely a summer endeavor as the Stars look to shore up for a playoff run this spring.

*Dallas sent their third round pick to the New York Rangers to acquire forward Mats Zuccarello at the trade deadline last season. The argument could be made that this deal worked out pretty well for Dallas, even with the time Zuccarello missed due to breaking his arm in the first game he played in Victory Green. His instant chemistry and playmaking ability unlocked the offense of the Stars’ top six last season, and was a key part of Dallas’ run to a double-overtime loss in game seven of the second round versus the St. Louis Blues. Zuccarello had four goals and 11 points in 13 playoff games with the Stars last year.

2021 Salary Cap

If the Stars look for a player beyond a true rental, the salary cap for next year starts to get a little bit more complicated. Here’s what that picture looks like right now:

Radek Faksa is due for a raise from his $2.2 million salary this season. Ditto Denis Gurianov ($894,166) and Roope Hintz ($811,667). That gives Dallas 12 forwards already signed for next season. Assuming that Dallas moves on from Corey Perry, that leaves the Stars to make a decision on Mattias Janmark as their 13th forward. Adding a playmaking forward this season with term that would carry into next year would likely push Janmark out naturally. That also means that Janmark is the most likely player that could be part of such a trade, if Nill’s history of one-for-one player trades comes into play again, as he might command a higher salary next season than fits into the Stars’ salary cap situation.

As it stands for this season, Dallas will have LTIR space that can be dipped into, allowing them to acquire most reasonably-priced contracts they may target on a rental basis.

But rentals aren’t the only possible players available at the trade deadline. Taking some liberties into guessing what some of the contract extensions could look like next year, and assuming Dallas signs Anton Khudobin for at least another year (based on an assumption that Landon Bow or Jake Oettinger need another year to be ready for NHL backup duty), I think Dallas would only consider adding a player with term extending past this season with a salary of $4 million at most to give them the ability to operate next season with some wiggle room in terms of the salary cap ceiling.

(Also important to note that Martin Hanzal’s contract will disappear off the books next year, meaning that Dallas doesn’t have a LTIR candidate to dip into right away to spend over the salary cap ceiling next year. That will impact any choice that could be made that influences next season and beyond.)

Player Pipeline

Dallas has a decent, not overly strong, prospect pipeline. From Scott Wheeler’s prospect rankings:

“The first is that the players near the top are good. They match up well versus any team ranked behind them on the list — and a few ahead of them. The second is that it tails off fast.”

There are likely a few players that other teams would look to acquire if Dallas wanted a key player from their roster — with names such as Thomas Harley, Jason Robertson, Ty Dellandrea, and Jake Oettinger. But those are integral parts to Dallas being able to fit the likes of Tyler Seguin and Miro Heiksanen’s big future contract into the salary cap in the years to come when these prospects will hit the NHL on entry level deals.

In other words, I don’t see prospects being a place from which Dallas will look to move assets to improve the team right now — unless that improvement comes with team control and some term.

So What Does Dallas Do At The Trade Deadline?

The big question as the trade deadline approaches will be whether a playmaking forward is available, whether as a rental or on a longer-term contract that will fit into the Stars plans both this season and next year. Dallas can add a bigger contract and use some of their LTIR relief at the trade deadline, so barring some insane number, Dallas has the space to fit someone then and worry about tomorrow’s salary situation by kicking that can to the summer where deals can be made more easily.

In my view, I believe Dallas stands firm at the trade deadline. I’m not sure there is a player out there that will match with the assets the Stars have and are willing to part with versus the ones that the selling team would want to acquire. Additionally, I don’t think they have enough assets to out-bid the other buyers that will be in the market, either.

Much like how Nill indicated that interim head coach Rick Bowness is the guy through the end of the year, this is likely to be the roster through the end of the season. Any fixes for offensive creativity and scoring will have to come from within.

Getting a little more luck in the shooting percentage department sure wouldn’t hurt, either.