If the Early Free Agency Moves Are Any Indication, the Stars Still Don’t Trust Their Prospects

Except for signing Anton Khudobin, the Dallas Stars didn’t get better with their free agency signings.

When the power goes out on John Hammond’s park of genetically revived dinosaurs, Samuel L. Jackson consoles him by saying “It could have been worse, John. A lot worse.”

We all know what happens next (something worse). The what happens next part is probably the feeling for the more skeptical Dallas Stars fans.

Consider me in that group.

If you had to draw a map of what Dallas needed the most, you’d look below Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov to see a void of Lovecraftian proportion. Below them, the next closest forward in point totals was Mattias Janmark, with 34. Then Radek Faksa with 33. And then Devin Shore with 32. Dallas’ issue, in a nutshell — and the reason they were in on the John Tavares sweepstakes — was that they didn’t have forwards that could play up the lineup. GM Jim Nill seemed borderline agitated when this issue was brought up.

“I keep hearing about this depth scoring. … After 50 or 60 games (last season) we were eighth in the league in scoring, but it dropped off,” Nill said. “So it was there for 60 games, I think that’s an overhyped question. I don’t know why it keeps coming up. I think we can score with anybody and I think we added to that today.”

(Never mind that they were 23rd in even-strength goals for.)

So Dallas brought in Blake Comeau (three years, $2.4 million AAV), Roman Polak (one year, $1.3 million AAV), Anton Khudobin (two years, $2.5 million AAV), and some AHL talent. GM Nill’s not done, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grade him on the cap additions so far.

Comeau was presumably Antoine Roussel’s replacement. And this is how they stack up against one another (apologies in advance, you’re going to see a lot of these).

Comeau is better at entering the zone (by a solid margin), and his points per game throughout his career is slightly higher, but overall it looks like somewhat a wash when you take into account Comeau’s age and the fact that he was the fifth most used forward for Colorado last season. He won’t get the same opportunities in Dallas.

The idea of adding veteran presence is curious. As the roster is currently constructed, despite its youth, there is no rookie currently slated to play in the projected forward lineup.

Jamie Benn — Tyler Seguin — Valeri Nichushkin

Mattias Janmark — Jason Spezza — Alexander Radulov

Blake Comeau — Radek Faksa — Tyler Pitlick

Devin Shore — Martin Hanzal — Brett Ritchie

Is there something wrong with young, cheaper replacements?

Gemel Smith can’t replace Roussel instead of Comeau?

Remi Elie can’t replace Roussel instead of Comeau?

Away from the forwards, there’s no question that Dallas has a presumable top six set on their blue line with John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, Stephen Johns, Marc Methot, and Julius Honka.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Honka has turned into a rallying point (or anti-rallying point) for fans. Not only is the former first rounder yet to play a full NHL season, but he’s also become fantasy trade-bait for every marginal top-six forward from another team. On top of this, his 42 games under former head coach Ken Hithcock is somehow seen as “insight” into a progression that was handicapped the moment Jamie Oleksiak started in his place (if his 16-game stint under Lindy Ruff wasn’t good enough to deserve a roster spot, then the word “deserve” is meaningless).

And yet here we are, actively wondering whether Polak could take his spot despite Polak’s less than ideal shot metrics, and despite being significantly worse in his own zone than Honka:

Honka actually stacks up favorably (read: better) to teammate Stephen Johns in the defensive zone according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data. And Johns just received a nice vote of confidence via a three-year deal. But Honka is young, and undersized — suspiciously like most of the elite defensemen drafted in 2018 — and so the stereotype of needing to be better defensively follows him (true or not, there’s no reason for this criticism to evade everyone else).

Of course, Polak did score more points than Honka in only 12 more games. What a difference getting twice as much even strength ice time on the second best offensive team in the league last season makes. Imagine that: more ice time + more talented teammates = better production. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza delivery.

If you notice a Chicken Little demeanor to this writing, you’re not wrong. But I’m not a cynic. I think Miro Heiskanen is every bit the hype you think he is. I think Honka won’t have to worry about Polak taking his spot. I think there’s a fun bit of voodoo to the connection between Nichushkin playing for Dallas, and Dallas making the playoffs when he’s consistently in the lineup. And I think Dallas is a decent wild-card team who is borderline solid if the new head coach Jim Montgomery is as good as advertised.

What’s concerning is the skepticism of its youth. If you go back to look at the projected roster (projected to be worth $13+ million tied up in its bottom six), there is literally no room for Elie, Smith, Dickinson, or the two players who nearly made the team out of camp last year in Roope Hintz and Nicholas Caamano. And that’s not counting dark horses like Denis Gurianov, Sheldon Dries (who scouts raved about during his AHL stint and got picked up by Colorado), Jason Robertson, and other Texas Stars stalwarts.

But let’s consider worst case scenario. If Dallas doesn’t sign Comeau, would the risk of a prospect going bust in the bottom six be a tangible detriment to the team’s success? Unless the player is actively sabotaging the team each shift the way Zac Rinaldo does, or is doing stuff like this, I don’t see how.

So not only is there little risk in playing the younger forwards, but the reward is more significant than the on-ice results: it’s having a viable asset. Teams don’t trade valuable roster players for what-ifs (unless it’s a first-round draft pick). They trade them for certified contributors. Max Domi was an asset. Noah Hanifan was an asset. Elias Lindholm was an asset. Adam Larsson was an asset. That’s the value — no matter how superficial — of being a high draft pick with NHL experience.

Dallas could find out if Dickinson, Hintz, Smith, Heatherington, etc. are assets, but they don’t seem interested in finding out. Instead they’re intent on signing the next Adam Cracknell, Lauri Korpikoski, Jiri Hudler, or Travis Moen.

Unlike Dallas’ prospects, those players are no longer a part of the organization. Meanwhile, the players who have developed within Dallas’ system for years are swimming upstream.

Maybe that’s the source of skepticism. If Dallas can’t trust their young players to be tasked with roles at the NHL level, then what does that say about the organization’s drafting and development? As I said, I think Dallas will be sneaky good next season (call it Heiskanen’s Law, if you will), and I think having a coach let players play to their strengths with the puck will go a long way.

Free agency could have been worse. A lot worse. But why set the bar at kill-crazy dinosaurs in the first place? If the kids aren’t alright, maybe it’s the adults that need to resolve their issues too.