“We like where we’re at.”
It’s a phrase oft said by Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill in years past when the team has not made anything other than minor depth moves at the trade deadline, preferring to dance with the lineup that got him there. For some fans, it’s a death knell — a white flag on trying to improve the team beyond what has been seen to that point in the season, even if some obvious (to them) flaws exist in the lineup. For others, it’s white noise — just words said to appease the media asking the questions, preferring to see what his actions say instead. This year, more than many in the past, it’s harder to predict whether Jim Nill will use these words.
Who are the Dallas Stars?
Are they the terrible road team that struggled to look cohesive at the beginning of the season, not able to hit the broad side of a barn if the net was the size of a soccer goal? Or are they the team that went on an amazing run to get back into the thick of the playoff run in the Western Conference? Or are they the middling team of late?
As it currently stands, it feels like the Stars are a team that should make the playoffs. They’re in based on points percentage, and have some of the fewest games played of any of the teams they’re competing with for that last Wild Card spot.
To be more comfortable with the team actually getting into the playoffs, they need an actual second line to do some scoring. That’s the biggest hole that the Stars have in the lineup. And it’s something that has been an issue for several seasons in a row now.
There’s a few ways to get there: change the system, change the personnel, or addition by subtraction.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way: the Stars are highly unlikely to get rid of Rick Bowness, or any other coach on staff, before the offseason. Bowness’ contract expires at the end of this season. Jim Nill’s contract expires at the end of next season. Taking the coaching duties away from Bowness now would require them to install a new coach. With as many coaching changes as this core has had in the last five years, I don’t think there’s an appetite for a short-term change. So, if they decide to move on from Bowness, Nill would need to look for a long-term solution instead.
And the natural question is, does Nill get another chance to hire a coach? Or do they ride out this season and look at wholesale changes in the offseason, where clearer pictures can be seen of the present and future beyond the immediate desire to make the playoffs?
So let’s take “change the system” off the board for improving the scoring issue.
That leads to the second option, changing the personnel. That could come in the form of a trade for some scoring help. With Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop on LTIR, the Stars could have a little cap space to work with. However, there are some heavy hitters in the trade market for the same thing, with assets that might be more appealing than the Stars have available (i.e. ability to retain salary, more cap space, better prospects).
With the Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn getting older, Dallas needs their high-ceiling prospects to stay in the system. They’ll need that cost control in the future as well as being able to inject some different skillsets into the lineup. So I think from a future planning perspective, I don’t see Dallas parting with many of their draft picks are prospects they are highest on that would be necessary to get some of the big names floating on the trade deadline rumor train.
So I’d put “change the personnel” from a trade perspective as something that could happen, but maybe not anything that would blow you away.
That brings us to improvements through subtraction. In other words, trading players away and opening spots in the lineup for guys like Riley Damiani to come up and change the forward dynamics.
This could strike the balance of both worlds - getting some assets for expiring contracts. One whisper of something that has come up with Dallas now that Joe Pavelski has signed a contract extension is the New York Rangers showing some interest in Alexander Radulov as reported by Elliotte Friedman of TSN. Radulov has had a down year offensively, though his tenacity on the puck and willingness to battle in the corners remains. Those skills are valued by contenders looking for reinforcements at the trade deadline, and the subtraction of him from the lineup isn’t going to have a huge impact in terms of goal scoring for the Stars.
That could open the door to Riley Tufte and/or Riley Damiani coming into the lineup to see if there’s a different combination that could spark some chemistry in the middle six for the Stars. Without Radulov, maybe you see a forward lineup something like this:
Jason Robertson - Roope Hintz - Joe Pavelski
Jacob Peterson - Tyler Seguin - Denis Gurianov
Marian Studenic - Jamie Benn - Riley Damiani
Michael Raffl - Radek Faksa - Luke Glendening
With the news that Miro Heiskanen is out for an indeterminate time, it feels very unlikely that top defenseman John Klingberg gets traded from Dallas. I think they need him in the lineup more than they need whatever assets they could get for him (which would be future assets, not necessarily someone that could come in and fill his spot immediately) to even make the playoffs this year. (Have you seen this team try to make a zone entry on the power play when he’s not in the lineup? It’s abysmal.) So I anticipate Klingberg being retained as a kind of trade deadline acquisition for his current team more than I’d expect him in a different uniform after next Monday.
I asked Nill how he viewed the defensive corps without Heiskanen, and he seemed to signal that the team is good with where they are. “We’ve still got seven capable guys that are playing, and I’ve got three guys down in the minors...that could come up and play for us also. We’re in a good position there.”
Thomas Harley has shown that he’s capable of playing in the NHL now. Joel Hanley has brought some stability to the bottom pairing. Jani Hakanpaa has done an admirable job taking on more minutes with Heiskanen out. Nill likes his depth, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a trade for a depth defenseman in case more injuries come down the line. (Think Ben Lovejoy, not Erik Karlsson.)
However, if he wanted to do that, I’m not sure he would have placed Andrej Sekera on waivers yesterday as he’s the type of veteran defenseman he’d be looking for on the trade market. Why obtain one when you already have one in-house?
That makes me think that the defense isn’t in for a major shakeup this weekend, either. So I think once Heiskanen returns to the lineup, the defense is like what we’ve already seen this year:
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Ryan Suter - Miro Heiskanen
Jani Hakanpaa - Thomas Harley
At the beginning of the season, I would have placed good money on Braden Holtby changing into a trade chip for Nill by the trade deadline. After all, indications were that they’d have four goaltenders in training camp - Anton Khudobin, Ben Bishop, Braden Holtby, Jake Oettinger. It’d be difficult to find time for all of them to get game action.
My, how quickly that changed. (It’s a good thing I don’t do many prop bets...)
Bishop’s knee issue never got better, and he effectively retired in all but contract only in December. Anton Khudobin struggled in the NHL before being placed on and clearing waivers. Then he got hurt, and now he’s had hip surgery that will keep him out for the next six months. Braden Holtby is also dealing with a nagging injury, so Oettinger has the starter’s net for the foreseeable future.
This is where Dallas could make a surprise and trade for a backup goaltender to ensure the depth they’d need if they make the playoffs and Holtby isn’t 100%. But that market is also really crowded, and they already have a lot of money dedicated to the goaltending position.
....SO WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT TO HAPPEN MONDAY?
“We like where we’re at.”