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Matching Minors: The Ins and Outs of a Potential Mats Zuccarello Contract for the Dallas Stars

Wes: Fifteen games feels like an awfully brief window to make a potentially franchise-altering impact. It seems silly. The NHL season is notable for the fact that it is an unrelenting slog. Wheat is separated from chaff, Brunnstroms Brunnstrom, and life moves inexorably along. The entire system is designed to favor the consistent. Yet here we are, as Dallas Stars fans, obsessing and projecting about the potential impact of a diminutive Norwegian playmaker’s hot minute with the Stars.

This is a Mats Zuccarello conversation, of course, because roughly 70% of current Stars fandom must revolve around the imported playmaker. Not that the reasons behind that obsession aren’t solid. In fifteen games, Zuccarello lifted a moribund, “horse-shit” offense into something approaching respectability. In terms of actual numbers he managed 5 goals and 9 assists. Not insignificant totals, but they only tell a part of the story.

Zuccarello’s time with the team coincided with the emergence of Roope Hintz and a tantalizing playoff run that came within a Cogliano Yip (or a Jamie Benn toe-curve) of the Western Conference Final. In a season that, for so long, seemed mired in frustration, the deadline acquisition felt like a breath of fresh air. To carry the metaphor, he was a gust of wind in the Stars’ sails at a critical time in both the season and the franchise’s overall history.

So I’ll start with the heavy question: How much of Dallas’ late-season resurgence was real (i.e. did the Dallas Stars actually get better), and how much of that reality was a product of Zuccarello’s introduction into the lineup?

I ask because, of course, everything comes with a cost. In exchange for Zuccarello, the Stars have something of a headache on their hands. As of this writing, the Stars are out a 2019 second round pick and a 2020 third round pick for Zuccarello. However, should he return to Dallas, the 2020 pick becomes a first rounder. Then there’s the cash he’ll need to relocate south.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s a cost of doing business. Ultimately, the Dallas Stars are going to need to determine if Zuccarello is worth that cost. That conversation starts with understanding exactly what he was worth while he was with the team. Easy peasy.

Robert: I think it’s safe to say that the Stars are planning to extend Zuccarello (assuming he’ll have them), if for no other reason than not to have paid two top-100 picks for a mere 15 games of work.

As you said, the Stars’ offense was the hockey equivalent of a watermelony fecal felony. They need a real second line, and without Zuccarello, the Stars will basically be back to choosing among Tyler Pitlick, Blake Comeau, and Mattias Janmark to fill out the top six. If you remember back in game one of the season, Dallas was hoping for something from players like Devin Shore and Jason Spezza to bolster their secondary scoring. It didn’t happen, and both are gone. Dallas had perhaps the worst secondary scoring in the NHL last year until Roope Hintz and Mats Zuccarello found their way into the top six as the playoffs approached, and I’m hard-pressed to say that things will be much better next year with most of the top scorers getting closer to 30 (and beyond) than 25.

Dallas has them a lot of “these are hockey guys” players on the team right now, and it turns out character doesn’t score goals on its own. Comeau, Cogliano, Janmark, Pitlick, Nichushkin, Dowling, Ritchie…you get the point. Yes, Jason Dickinson is a great two-way player who has earned a look at the minutes Radek Faksa has been playing over the last couple of years, but Faksa still scored the fourth-most goals on the entire team. That’s as much an indictment of the Stars’ offense as it is a bit of goal-setting for Dickinson, but I digress.

That’s what Zuccarello does for this team: he gives them a scoring threat outside of the top line Jim Montgomery (like most any coach, in all likelihood) loves to go to when Dallas needs a goal. Whether on the power play, against less capable defensive pairings, or at 4-on-4, Zuccarello is a vital arrow in Montgomery’s quiver that he didn’t have for the other 80 games of the regular season. To that point, Zuccarello led the team in playoff scoring (alongside Tyler Seguin), and that with one of his arms tied behind his back (only somewhat figuratively). Dallas needs Zuccarello, and he’s proven that he can play on this team and generate points without playing with the top guys all the time. That’s something almost no other Dallas Stars besides Klingberg and Heiskanen can say.

The sticking point, of course, is cost. If Dallas is set on justifying their acquisition cost for Zuccarello, what do you think is a reasonable number to offer as far as a retention outlay?

Wes: Reasonable is a weird word. Also, sorry, I’m about to be a downer.

Zuccarello managed just about a point per game as a Dallas Star. Were that the baseline, my answer would be to back up the truck, and welcome to Dallas! Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple. What the Stars are actually considering is signing a 31-year-old winger with a single 60-point season on his resume. One of GM Jim Nill’s many challenges is to fight through the noise of a positive playoff run and make a rational decision. Good luck, Jim.

Prior to this year’s truncated campaign, Zuccarello has been incredibly durable. His lowest game total was 77 in the 2013-14 season. In those games he’s averaged between 17 and 20 minutes per night, which is exactly what you want to see in a top-six forward. Combined with his relatively stable point totals, this tells me Dallas is looking at a consistent asset.

Which is part of the problem.

Again, cutting through the noise of the postseason run, consistent also means it’s unlikely the Stars are going to catch Radu-lightning in a bottle again. Really, Dallas is looking at locking up the back nine of an under-sized 50-point forward. That’s not bad! It isn’t like Zuccarello is going to go all Logan’s Run on his 32nd birthday, but it does mean signing him carries some level of risk. Meanwhile, the Stars have locked up their goaltending for big money, as well as a smattering of large extensions on the back line and throughout the forward group. Oh, and by the way, Dallas needs more than just Mats Zuccarello to contend.

What I mean by all of this is that things are not as simple as “does Dallas sign Mats Zuccarello?” Jamie Benn scored 53 points last season, Alexander Radulov is 32 years old, and even if we could count on both (plus Tyler Seguin!) to perform at absolutely optimal levels, the Stars are likely two forwards short of dangerous. Zuccarello could be one, and it looks like Roope Hintz is the other, but how sure are you? What if he isn’t? You’ve already posted the rest of the list as far as in-house options are concerned, it’s not exactly thrilling.

But you asked a question.

Justin Williams is production-comparable (53 points last season), six years older, and carries a cap hit of $4.5 million. Nino Niederreiter is also production-comparable (53 points last season), five years younger, and carries a cap hit of $5.25 million. Williams signed a two-year deal while Niederreiter’s pact was for five seasons. That’s the range I’d target for a player like Zuccarello. I will also say I’d much rather pay a premium in dollars than in years. Maybe call it four years, $25 million?

What do you think, Robert? What number are you writing on a slip of paper and sliding across the table? Perhaps more importantly, what kind of uplift do you think the fact he’s an unrestricted free agent might create? There’s what he deserves, and there’s what he’ll get, in other words.

Also, is Zuccarello the best option? Do you feel like there are better fits for the money? Play GM for a moment, what would you do?

Robert: If I’m playing GM for the moment, then I have been sending Artemi Panarin entire truckloads of smoked brisket for the past year. He’s the best player available this summer, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.

But if we assume that Panarin is going to New York, Chicago, or Florida, then you’re into the still-great but slightly less-elite territory of, say, Matt Duchene. And I think Matt Duchene, as a center, will get a whole bunch of the monies. He’s younger than Zuccarello, but I’d put his contribution to the offense around Zuccarello’s, given that he’d be playing behind some other guys on the top power play and such. Besides, Dallas would have to offer a giant sum of money, and I’m not convinced Duchene is going to make their salary cap rigidity worthwhile.

Besides, the Stars can negotiate with Zuccarello now. They have to wait until July 1 (or close to it) for anyone else, and that’s a big risk, as we saw with Dallas leaving the John Tavares and Erik Karlsson (trade, but still) sweepstakes empty-handed last year. Is Zuccarello the best option of the UFAs out there? Eh, he’s probably the third or fourth-best forward, but this isn’t a shopping mall. If Zuccarello is willing to re-sign in Dallas for number X, and Dallas says no, they run a very real risk of seeing a second straight season of an offense among the NHL’s worst.

So, for all of those reasons and Zuccarello’s limited chemistry that we’ve seen so far, I think you might as well extend him rather than risk getting nobody. But only up to a point, so I guess this is where the numbers come in.

Realistically, Dallas should aim for any AAV under six million, but I don’t think Zuccarello takes anything less than six (or even seven!) million unless he gets five years in term. And five years in term will mean Zuccarello will be in Dallas making, say, $5.75 million a season until the year before the end of Jamie Benn’s contract.

Zuccarello, as you say, has been something like a 50-60 point guy since he hit the league full-time. He’s only hit 20 goals once, and that was in the same year Jason Spezza last scored 30. As much as Zuccarello might age better than either Benn or Seguin, there is a hard dose of reality that we do have to face here. And that is, in my mind, whether the Stars think signing a second-line forward as he hits 32 is worth adding almost another two-thirds of Jamie Benn’s contract.

The best-case scenario for Dallas is probably that Zuccarello signs somewhere closer to four or five million, but that would likely mean at least five years of accompanying term. As much as the Radulov signing seemed like a win-now move, Zuccarello would be, in my eyes, even more of a “make hay while the sun shines” bit of spending. Radulov has been elite, a top-line scorer even in his thirties. Zuccarello, good as he is, will not be that. He might carry a line some nights, but the Stars have to understand what they are and are not getting if they sign Zuccarello. This will be an overpay (though an earned one, if that makes sense) because of the Stars’ failure to draft or develop secondary scoring themselves over the last decade. If Dallas does sign Zuccarello, then you have to look at the next two years, realistically, as their window. Yes, Heiskanen, Klingberg, and maybe Seguin will still be elite after that, but Ben Bishop, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov will all be considerably into their thirties by the time Seattle begins play in 2021-22. Add Zuccarello to that list, and you have a core that looks remarkably like Chicago’s did this season. You have to have help coming, but Dallas will be making a big bet on the help they have in-house if they do end up backing up the truck to Zuccarello’s house.

But really, what’s the alternative? Spend more on Jeff Skinner (who may not be available anyway) and hope he doesn’t get injured again? Buy low on Jordan Eberle? Hope you can trade for someone else out there? It’s all pretty murky. Zuccarello, for all the risks a big contract brings for a player of his age and production, would make the Stars better. And it seems like that’s pretty clearly the imperative from ownership.

The best option, in my mind, would be a GM Jim Nill Ninja Trade like we saw back in the old days. (How old are we now? Yeesh.) But betting that you can pull off a trade is even riskier than betting on signing a free agent, isn’t it? Or do you think there’s a really good trade or UFA signing Dallas could pull off?

Wes: Would you laugh if I told you I thought Eberle should be a major target? One more goal would have been his sixth straight 20+ goal campaign (seventh if you ignore the lockout-shortened year). If Nill could land him at a reclamation-project rate, better yet on a short-term “prove it” deal, I’d be ecstatic. Buy what he is — a talented, albeit-mercurial offensive player. That’s fine, there’s room for that here.

Panarin and Duchene are the obvious reaches (good coaching finds a way to work around the fact Duchene is positionally a center), and if Jeff “I scored 40 goals” Skinner is out there you have to at least have a conversation, right? Just imagine the Stars with another 35-40 goals. Swoon. Dallas should take their number and take their run, same as literally everyone else.

Expanding the search, would Kevin Hayes make a trip south? Did John Tortorella scratch Ryan Dzingel onto the market? Micheal Ferland? Marcus Johansson? I would throw out my back doing cartwheels if Dallas landed anyone from that group. Hell, Alex Chiasson scores goals sometimes. Basically, anyone who has ever scored more than 20 goals or 40 points should be a target for the Dallas Stars. Unlike seasons past, the Stars do not necessarily need a Radulov-level home run. They just need to string together a couple base hits.

Were I Nill, I would also have a very private conversation about buy-outs, or do a little soul searching about cutting bait on guys who haven’t panned out. Not necessarily because I want to recapture cap dollars, but as a way to freshen up the roster. Dallas could very well stand to admit a few mistakes and cycle three or four of the names on your earlier list for other guys who might prove useful. I get that we’re talking about livelihoods, but we know what Mattias Janmark is; what if Joel L’Esperance is more than that?

Are there any other lottery tickets (we’re talking scratch-off, not Powerball) floating around that might give the Stars a surprise 20-goal man? Would they be aggressive enough to bury a deal in the minors, or lose someone on waivers? Even if a Denis Gurianov doesn’t pan out, at some point they have to figure that out, right?

I’m not Jim Nill, though, which also means an RFA run is tragically unlikely. A more aggressive GM (or, frankly, a dumber one) might be able to contract-hell Toronto into losing either Mitch Marner (unlikely) or Kasperi Kapanen (more likely) with dual and/or duel offer sheets. Ditto Winnipeg. If Dallas is willing to wildly overpay they might back the Jets into a corner too small for both Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor. If Erik Karlsson-to-Tampa rumors kick up again, why not take a Hail Mary swing at Brayden Point? It would fail, but it might shake loose a guy like Tyler Johnson. Do the suddenly cap-conscious Vegas Golden Knights have concerns about William Karlsson’s number?

The offer sheet would have to be gross to work, but as you so astutely point out, this is a team looking at the next two to three seasons. Also, with the exception of Miro Heiskanen, the elite sections of the roster are already locked up, thus limiting the trickle down impact of an oversized deal. Why not go big and sort it all out after the lockout?

In terms of trade bait, I think the world of both Jason Dickinson and Radek Faksa, but I also think the Stars only truly need one of the pair. I think what I would simultaneously love and hate to see is Dallas having the stones to make a move. One of those two players should form the spine of a multi-piece, roster-refining offseason trade.

Am I crazy? Yes, this team almost made a conference final, but they didn’t. Also, as currently constructed, they probably won’t next year. Holding on to familiar faces is asking for trouble, in my opinion.

I think that’s where I’ll stop. Contracts aside, what does this team actually need? And my final question, what potential move would scare you?

Robert: I’m more or less on record as saying that if you can trade Faksa for something with greater offensive upside, you should do it. His defensive reputation at this point is worth more than his overall contribution, and the Stars right now have shown a very clear aptitude for defensive hockey as a whole. Even if his replacement (be it Dickinson or whoever) doesn’t give you everything he did, it’s pretty clear that the Stars need offense from somewhere. Even bad teams can play good defensive schemes, and even bad players can be responsible. But you usually have to pay for scoring if you can’t draft it, and they haven’t in quite a while.

I’m torn on Eberle. If you really can buy low, then great. But is he really going to be great if he’s not on the top line? I’m not convinced he’d be able to do at 29 what we know Zuccarello can do in his thirties, but if you have to bet on someone, there are certainly worse players. As always, it depends on the price.

The move that scares me the most does so because it seems so probable: re-signing Ben Lovejoy seems like something people are actually talking about, in spite of, uh, how he actually did at the hockeys. But, you know, play on a decent penalty kill unit and you can basically get away with murder by omission at even-strength.

As far as forwards though, I don’t see Dallas offer-sheeting anyone, what with their sparse draft pick situation as it stands now. And names like Chiasson (no way), Marcus Johansson (fine but overrated), and Ferland (good second-line option but will be paid like a first-liner) all give me pause. You’d really have to pony up for those folks, and as we’ve said, I don’t know that a slight cost savings (if that’s even what it work out as) would be worth the uncertainty compared to just signing Zuccarello, who clearly enjoyed Dallas and played well even with one arm in pain most of the time.

What does this team actually need? They need more of the things they got in the playoffs: elite goaltending (which they should get if Bishop stays healthy), secondary scoring (TBD), and special teams that function above average on a consistent basis. Zuccarello helps their power play depth and their second line, and while there are other players who would do that too, he seems the best option as far likelihood and impact go.

Yes, Dallas was one goal from making the conference final; they were also two losses to Arizona away from missing the playoffs altogether. Dallas cannot afford to use the playoffs as some kind of foolproof audit for what their team needs when the regular season showed them quite clearly where their weaknesses are: they don’t have good depth on defense, and they have absolutely no depth in terms of scoring up front. There’s a reason everyone is saying “second-line forward and a 4D” so much this offseason.

Zuccarello comes with risk. Every player does. But Zuccarello would have been a good target for Dallas even if they hadn’t acquired him at the trade deadline. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of how much he helps the team to patch its (very real) holes in the lineup, Dallas needs to find a way or make a way to doing so for next season and beyond.

Most of your team’s hopes for success next year should always be located in-house. Shopping sprees rarely work out–just ask Columbus, who only barely made the playoffs–and even when they do, you end up paying off your credit card long after you’re interested in wearing the clothes you bought. But for a team like Dallas, whose systemic depth is still a little ways from the NHL, they need a bit of insurance to see if, as you say, guys like Gurianov are really ready to be players. To see if L’Esperance or Dowling can hold down the fourth line as well as–or even better than–the players making four or five times as much.

Ideally, Dallas will be able to move everyone down a spot. That’s always what you want. Last season showed us the issues with having a second defense pairing of Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis; this year, Polák was covered up and then some by having Miro Heiskanen next to him. The more Dallas can bolster their depth up top, the better their bottom-six players will look. Mats Zuccarello seems as good a way to make that happen as Dallas is likely to get this summer, but we’ve been surprised before. We almost surely will be surprised again.