Analysis: How Do the Stars Navigate the Known Unknowns in Net?
Dallas has three NHL quality netminders, but there are questions about each. General manager Jim Nill will need all of his jedi skills to navigate his way through this offseason.
The Dallas Stars goaltending situation wasn’t supposed to be this complicated. With the impending expansion draft, Dallas would protect number one netminder Ben Bishop, exposing Anton Khudobin to be picked by the Seattle Kraken. Jake Oettinger would be there, waiting in the wings; either as a backup or as the number one with the Texas Stars in the unlikely case where Khudobin wasn’t selected by Seattle.
That was the thinking when the Stars signed Khudobin to a three year, $10 million deal October 9th of 2020.
After an up-and-down season, Khudobin is no longer the obvious selection for the Kraken. In the meantime, Oettinger put together an impressive rookie season, making his case for a full-time NHL job. With Bishop taking a bit longer than expected to rehabilitate, Dallas has no obvious answers about what their netminding tandem will look like to start the 2021-2022 season.
How this works out has added significance for the Stars this coming year.
The leadership group is past their productive peak. Tyler Seguin hits 30 next January, and Jamie Benn will be 32 next month. By that time, Alexander Radulov will be 35 and Joe Pavelski will be 37. This core group of forwards has been responsible for all the heavy lifting up front for most of the last five years.
Dallas has some flashy young talent, especially Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson. With the morass of injuries to the front line this past season, they demonstrated the potential to carry the team for a new generation of Stars. But make no mistake: this is still the team of Benn, Seguin, Radulov and Pavelski - at least for this coming year.
Throw in a summer of rest, Rick Bowness and his expiring contract, and 2021-2022 looks like the make or break year for this group. Some around here may think that a change is overdue; that an overreaction to an injury-filled season took an entertaining, high-flying Lindy Ruff scoring machine and turned it into a grind-it-out snooze fest under Ken Hitchcock, Jim Montgomery and Bowness.
I’m not here to argue that point. All I’m saying is that this coming year will be the culmination (or well deserved end) of the latest version of these Stars. What this team claims as its identity beyond next year is up in the air. One thing we do know is the identity of this group, and like it or not, everything that the team does this offseason needs to be seen in the light of making this coming year a final payoff for the team that we’ve come to love (and, sometimes, hate).
It’s Stanley Cup or Bust, and they just might have the talent to do it if everything falls into place.
Given the nature of the coming year, the decisions about netminders take on added significance. Can a team that is all-in for the year risk having Jake Oettinger as their true number one?
Of course, if Bishop has a setback in his rehabilitation, much of this becomes moot, but timing is everything. If the events around the 2017 expansion draft are any indication, July is going to be hectic. Teams will spend their time leading up to the July 17 deadline for submission of the official player exposure list making sure that they are compliant to the draft rules. For Dallas, this means getting one more eligible forward onto the roster.
The following week will include not only the expansion draft, but also a slew of other activity as teams pull their rosters together. If the status of Bishop isn’t known by then, Dallas is going to need to cross their fingers and make some educated guesses. If August 1st rolls around and the Stars plans for goal are not set, the pickings are going to be slim.
Assuming that Bishop is a go, the absolute conservative take would be to keep Bishop and Khudobin, sending Oettinger to Cedar Park. This move costs Dallas $2.4 million in cap space, plus whatever developmental setback Oettinger gets from playing against AHL competition instead of NHL competition. Stars fans may riot, but this scenario may be the one most likely to get the team the Cup.
Alternatively, the Stars could look to move either Bishop or Khudobin. They both have no-trade clauses in their contracts, Bishop with a 10-team no-trade list and Khudobin with a four-team list. Given the opportunities out there, these can be overcome, especially given some of the teams that either have cap issues or are in a rebuild and would be helped by dumping a contract for an aging veteran.
A few candidates that could be targeted are discussed below.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are an Andrei Vasilevskiy injury away from being a great team that is betrayed by sub-standard netminding. They could use a quality backup, but one who doesn’t break the bank. They could use cap relief, and Tyler Johnson has been playing third line minutes on a $5 million dollar contract that runs through 2024. There are some issues with the timing of Tampa Bay in the playoffs and their expansion eligibility list, but a Khudobin-Johnson deal is as close to win-win as there is out there. Dallas can afford the money and they need a forward. Tampa Bay needs a backup and they could use the cap space.
Washington needs a quality backup, and they seem to want the cap space to try to re-sign Alex Ovechkin. TJ Oshie has a 10-team no-trade clause, his contract is $5.75 million through 2025, but this would be manageable for the Stars. The contract is too long, but Oshie’s productivity hasn’t fallen off a cliff yet. In addition, Oshie is a finisher, something that Dallas has been missing.
The real question will be whether the Capitals believe they can sacrifice Oshie and their own team’s competitive window to obtain a quality backup netminder when there’s likely to be some left on the market once all the deck chairs are rearranged this summer.
Evgeni Dadonov didn’t have the best numbers in his first year with the Senators, and Ottawa may not want to pay the extra cash that he is owed given their young core and their frugal nature. Matt Murray isn’t cutting it as Ottawa’s number one and they could use the help. The Senators could easily be on a no-trade list, so this could be a non-starter, but Dadonov has two years left on a $5 million cap hit deal that is heavy on cash in the last two years.
Calgary needs a backup, and Milan Lucic is just the kind of player that the old-school Stars would want to bolster their fourth line. It’s a complicated transaction, since Lucic has an 8-team trade list, and his contract already includes $750,000 in retained salary from Edmonton, but it’s a deal that ends in 2023 and the cost would be just over $5 million. Plus, Lucic wasn’t terrible last year(?)
Are any of these moves that the Stars could make a purely hockey move? (Stars critics say Lucic, but you know the answer is Johnson.) It doesn’t really matter. Circumstances have changed, and Dallas needs to move forward as best they can.
That means two goaltenders, and given the timelines, the sooner the better. Patience may get the team to a point when they can make the ideal decision, but the longer the team waits, the more limited their options will become.
No decision carries absolutely no risk. This season the Stars are at a crossroads for the franchise, and the wrong decision (and to be honest, just dumb luck) could mean the end of an era. That said, the team needs to roll the dice and move forward by making best guesses, not by waiting for all of the data to come in.
And for the record, I think that Oettinger is ready for whatever the Stars throw at him.