When the Stars signed Colin Miller during the final hours of the first day of free agency in July, it came with a bittersweet feeling. While Miller was considered a serviceable defenseman in the NHL, this signing all but confirmed the Stars would not be re-signing John Klingberg and instead let him walk for nothing as an unrestricted free agent.
Colin Miller signed a two-year deal worth $1.85 million annually against the cap. At the time, few people really knew what to expect from him; not because he was unknown to the NHL discourse, but mostly due to his multiple injuries and also recent play on the lowly Buffalo Sabres. He had played 38 games the year prior due to an undisclosed injury while posting a respectable 14 points as a defender, but was mostly utilized in a third-pairing role with up-and-coming prospect Jacob Bryson.
Miller played great during his first year in Vegas but later struggled in a fop-four role which could’ve played a factor in his subsequent trade to Buffalo, excluding the fact that it was a cap clearing move by the Golden Knights to accommodate yet another big fish they were after. Better said, they needed as much space as possible for a shiny new deal of Mark Stone, acquired a few months earlier.
The question then lingered. Was Colin Miller capable of handling top-four minutes for the Dallas Stars? Technically, he has the tools. The speed, the drive and especially a bomb of a shot. He can hold his own defensively and together with Esa Lindell, they have the best xGF/xGA ratio of all defensive combinations out there so far this season.
Jim Nill might have traded for Nils Lundkvist with a long-term picture in his head, which is for Lundkvist to potentially become an ideal partner for Miro Heiskanen. Well, the future is now as they say as Lunkdvist is slowly but surely acclimatizing in the NHL and getting back his lost self-confidence from last season with the New York Rangers. Remember, he wasn’t a first round pick and a best defenseman of the entire SHL just by accident. The key for coach Peter DeBoer should be to have the lefty-righty combination on all three defensive pairing, as he himself admitted when leaving Colin Miller out of the lineup against Florida.
Looking at the graph above once again, you might see pairing Ryan Suter with Heiskanen should be a thing from the past. The fans deserve better than that. The numbers don’t lie: that pairing no longer works, if it ever actually did. I think this current coaching staff might have an ideal top-four combination right at the tip of their fingers with Heiskanen rolling with Lundkvist and Esa Lindell paired with Colin Miller. It’s also up to Miller to assert himself out there so that he’s not scratched more this season.
This might also somewhat free up the enigma which Ryan Suter has become during his tenure in Dallas. He has his vocal supporters as he has opponents who argue he’s not worthy of playing 22+ minutes a night. I strongly believe playing him less might maximize him as a night in, night out contributor. Just look what less ice-time did for Jamie Benn. We can talk about his potential buyout during summer, especially if Thomas Harley continues progressing as he is right now. But for now, it’s more vital to talk about the optimal usage. While having more than $5 million in cap space tied up in your third pairing is suboptimal, an offsetting factor might be having a player on his entry level deal playing on a first pair.
You can see that for this season, the combined cap hits for each pairing slightly decrease (as they should) from the projected first pair to the bottom one. Together, they add up to almost $23 million in cap (27.8% of total cap space), which is right in the middle of the league, ranking as the 15th highest combined cap hit for the defensive core. Another interesting note is that all six defensemen are signed through the next season also, giving you some cost stability and the predictability needed for long-term planning.
For the next year, you could just add Thomas Harley to the mix and let an ideal 7th defenseman in Joel Hanley go. The group wouldn’t lose anything in quality. On the contrary, actually. But the situation could create an interesting discussion on who to sit, given all seven options are considered NHL ready, or will come next season.
For the Ryan Suter buyout crowd out there, here is how the combined cap hits would look if his potential buyout happened next summer. Remember, Suter has a full NMC for the entirety of his deal and buyout is the only way to move him without receiving his permission. The other option to clear his full cap hit is if he retired, the same way Duncan Keith did before this season. Say the Stars offered Joel Hanley a league minimum one-year deal to continue being seventh defenseman for them.
The direct fiscal effect of a Harley/Suter swap for the next season is the cap saving of almost exactly $2 million dollars. The on-ice effect would remain to be seen but it is no surprise that the coaching staff down in Cedar Park has been focusing with Harley on his 5v5 play and penalty killing lately. It may very well come handy next year because as I pinpointed Radek Faksa as the forward that didn’t really fit into Pete DeBoers system last time, I have even harder time imagining Ryan Suter finishing his current deal in Dallas in its entirety, which will happen two and a half years from now. Just a small food for thought.
Another domino effect of potential cap savings next year? Being an active player on a free agent market. I’ve already mentioned the possibility of trading Radek Faksa away in this column a couple of weeks ago. Realistically however, if there’s a trade involved and it contains Faksa in it, it would probably be a typical dollar-in, dollar-out transaction, similar to the Devin Shore trade which brought Andrew Cogliano to Dallas. I also had a concrete trade idea recently on Twitter. For the sake of this little free agent exercise though, would I consider trading Faksa away completely and possibly even paying a little extra for that?
By cutting ties with him and potentially even Ryan Suter, Stars could create around $4.5 million of extra cap space for the next season already. The cap space is also projected to rise more significantly than previously projected. If the cap space really does rise by around $3.5 or even $4 million more, a whole other level of roster possibilities open up. One of which is a certain Patrick Kane. His mega-deal expires next summer, making him a possible trade deadline target acquisition for a contender.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of trading for Patrick Kane during this season. I’ve pondered about what it might cost for a contender to bring him in and it’s not nothing. This is what it might cost.
Possible price? A first-round pick in 2023 or 2024, highly touted prospect and a younger established roster player (if there isn’t one, then possibly another high draft pick in 2023 or 2024). A full retention is a must as Kane carries a 10.5 million cap hit.
For Dallas it would likely mean a conditional 2024 round pick (has to be conditional because the pick itself is involved in a Lundkvist trade and the Stars can trade it only in case they don’t finish among the 10 worst teams this season), a prospect of Logan Stankoven or Mavrik Bourque caliber and even another player like Matej Blumel or Thomas Harley. That’s just a straight no for me.
But if Jim Nill puts his Magic Mustache on during free agency and Kane isn’t signed to an extension elsewhere, imagine the chaos this forward group could create:
Jason Robertson - Roope Hintz - Joe Pavelski
Mason Marchment - Tyler Seguin - Patrick Kane
Jamie Benn - Wyatt Johnston - Logan Stankoven
Matěj Blümel - Riley Damiani - Ty Dellandrea
Extra: Jacob Peterson
This is just an embarrassment of riches and that is still put very, very mildly. If this prediction really materialized into something, I would be the first one to bet on the Stars winning the Cup. By the way, don’t forget I projected them to win it all in 2025 back in the early summer days this year and I still stand by this prediction.
If you think this roster prediction is too good to be true and you wouldn’t be able to fit a Roope Hintz extension and Patrick Kane new deal under the cap, think again. Yes, you’d probably need to move Denis Gurianov (or just not qualify him after this season) but this roster has a total cap hit of $85,452,500 and it would fit even below the $85.5 million threshold. That is a projected $3 million cap rise which might be a realistic expectation.
Are there some question marks? Of course! How about Joe Pavelski? Will he be willing to sign at a discount of $3.5 million dollar cap hit? Maybe if you incentivize it with bonuses, just like Boston did with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejčí. Hell, even Pavelski himself has a half-a-million performance level bonus which will probably be spilled into the 2023-24 season as a cap overage. And while we included Logan Stankoven directly in the lineup (I’d argue he is a better option than the entire current fourth line already), don’t forget about another Stars phenom prospect in Mavrik Bourque, who isn’t even mentioned on the roster.
Ok, but what if Patrick Kane isn’t available? Are there any other pending unrestricted forward options to improve the roster from the outside? While I didn’t mention him in the free agents overview, because he is an RFA and not an UFA, another intriguing option is Timo Meier from the San Jose Sharks.
He’s still only 26 years old and would fit like a glove in the Stars’ top six. The thing with him is you have to trade for him, as the Sharks hold his rights and he won’t be cheap. His qualifying offer is also set at minimum $10 million a year so that would require a whole lot of furniture moving to Jim Nill’s liking, who is more of a “this is how I constructed this house and I stand by it” kind of a GM.
There will definitely be other players available come deadline time and during the free agency in the summer, but given it is still pretty far away, the most intriguing debate revolves around Patrick Kane. The trade deadline activity should resolve a specific need for the team and the price attached to it should make a sense from a short-term as well as long-term view. Jim Nill has already given up a first (Lundkvist) and a third round pick (Wedgewood) in the upcoming draft and I think he (as a former scout) would prefer to keep the second rounder, instead of going full steam ahead in throwing away draft picks for rentals.
Why was the trade for then-rental Scott Wedgewood very good? Because it solved the immediate pressing need and he was even re-signed at a very good price, a bargain even, if you ask me. Having a solid backup goalie at almost league minimum for multiple years just for a third round pick is a very underrated quality move from Jim Nill. Wedgewood trade is also a reason why I am a bigger fan of those under-the-radar moves, like Colorado did when acquiring Andrew Cogliano for a 5th round pick (yeah, I know they got Lehkonen, too) or when Washington traded a third round pick for Michal Kempný in 2018.
That’s why I would be okay if the Stars even stand pat or did just a small move during this year’s trade deadline and focus more on the years to come. If you don’t have a pressing issue to fix (still yet to be determined), why throw away huge draft capital or great prospects just for a rental? If we‘re talking something Patrick Kane, why not just wait until free agency when you could gain an asset this big for practically nothing (I know Mr. Gaglardi, it’s just your money we’re talking about)?
Especially when the crop of the players available next July project to be rather tantalizing even beside Patrick Kane. I myself am a huge fan of Artem Zub, which brings us full circle to the building of an ideal defensive combination for your Dallas Stars.