Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Dallas Stars should examine the style of play they deploy on the ice. While we wait for whatever plan the NHL comes up with for resuming the 2019-2020 season, we’re continuing to look forward to next year to get a feel for all of the decisions the team is going to have to make (potentially under a very shortened timeframe if hockey can resume this year).
Changes to the overall direction of the team could be tricky, as the Stars have a number of players under contract — and the salary cap is very likely to be impacted by the current pandemic. On March 4, not that long before the season went onto an official pause, the NHL announced that the preliminary salary cap projections for next season would be higher than this year’s $81.5 million ceiling. Those projections were somewhere in the range of $84 million to $88.2 million, an increase between $3.5 million and $6.7 million. That’s a healthy jump for the league, but of course was always going to be subject to negotiations with the players on the escrow front.
With the league potentially losing out on upwards of $1 billion due to the season pause, the idea of the salary cap increasing next season seems like a pipe dream at this time. That will have a ripple effect on free agency, regardless of when it happens in the calendar year in what is likely to be the wackiest offseason of the sport (probably) in our lifetimes.
How do the Stars look if the salary cap remains at the $81.5 million level of this season for next year? (All figures referenced here are courtesy of CapFriendly, who do really amazing work in cultivating their database of information and all of the tools they put together for fans to have all their armchair GM fantasies played out on the internet.)
At first blush, Dallas looks okay for next season. One thing that is not noted here but will play a part in offseason moves this year is the fact that Martin Hanzal’s contract will come off the books at the end of this season. While the real dollars paid by ownership are nice to have off the ledger, this also means that GM Jim Nill doesn’t have that long-term injured reserve to dip into if needed next year.
The team has three key restricted free agents that will need new contracts — Radek Faksa, the team’s best shutdown center, and Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, the team’s breakout scorers on a team desperate for scoring. There are also five unrestricted free agents that the team will have to make decisions on. I’d expect that Roman Polak and Andrej Sekera would likely not be re-signed in the defensive grouping, hopefully clearing a path for young prospect Thomas Harley to have a legitimate chance at earning a spot on the NHL roster during training camp.
In the forward group, Mattias Janmark and Corey Perry are both unrestricted free agents. Based on this season’s performance, I would expect that Perry is not going to be re-signed. Janmark is more of a coin-flip to me, and he’s the most likely candidate to be a victim of the salary cap crunch. Though he doesn’t score much these days, Janmark is a good utility guy that can play throughout the bottom nine and has been a key component of the Stars’ second penalty killing unit (the second-highest center in PK time on ice behind Jason Dickinson, that carried a hefty workload this season). Janmark made $2.3 million this season, so what his ask is on his next contract and the free agency market will dictate whether he stays in Big D.
Then there’s everyone’s favorite backup goaltender. Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop have been an elite goaltending duo the last two seasons. Khudobin could probably get a decent raise over his $2.5 million this year on the open market by teams in need of a steadying influence in a tandem setup. If the Stars think that Jake Oettinger needs another season in the AHL to develop, could Khudobin consider re-signing with the Stars on a one-year contract in an effort to chase Lord Stanley? There’s definitely a path to both team and player coming together to keep the band together, so to speak, for next year.
If we assume that Khudobin re-signs with a bump on his annual value (maybe in the neighborhood of $3.3 million, a $1 million increase), and the trio of Faksa, Gurianov, and Kiviranta are signed somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million total, that would leave the Stars with somewhere around $6.2 million to fill two forward roster spots and a defenseman. That’s not a lot, and the Stars could consider making Jason Robertson and Joel Kiviranta full-time players at the NHL level, along with Thomas Harley, to take advantage of some entry-level deals to allow Nill flexibility in-season with some cap space (a nice change from this season, when the team was right up against the cap ceiling for most of the year).
With those assumptions, the Stars would look like this:
This lineup could look something along these lines on the ice:
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Denis Gurianov - Joe Pavelski - Roope Hintz
Blake Comeau - Radek Faksa - Andrew Cogliano
Jason Robertson - Jason Dickinson - Joel Kiviranta
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen - Stephen Johns
Jamie Oleksiak - Thomas Harley
What would truly be interesting in this scenario is that it assumes the Stars make no signings in free agency, instead choosing to elevate some youth from within. (Something Nill has never done in an offseason in his tenure.) Of course, we know that nothing ever happens in a vacuum, and trade situations could present opportunities that you can’t see now. Particularly when teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning end up having to trade a good forward piece because of the salary cap flattening and their own contract situations need to be resolved.
But hopefully this exercise illustrates that the Stars actually don’t have a lot of room to make free agency upgrades, and the options to re-tool the roster will most likely be either the trade route and/or utilizing their organizational depth to replenish their open spots once free agency gets underway.
This also underscores the need for Nill to be aligned with the next permanent head coach in terms of the direction of the team — whoever that ends up being.