Dallas Stars' Organizational Outlook: What Team Has it Better?
It's understandable to be cautious after last year, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this is a team ready to Do Things.
Marian Hossa is one of my favorite players. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the earliest one has to be his 1997-98 year with the Portland Winterhawks, a season which culminated in both a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup Trophy win for the club. The latter was won despite Hossa's being Kulikov'd in the deciding game, which resulted in a pretty cool moment where Hossa's teammates pushed him around the ice in a chair while he held the cup:
(Please note which player is the first to greet Hossa at 1:10 of the above video.)
Around seven years ago, Marian Hossa was stuck in Atlanta. The team was unable to work out an extension with the Slovakian force of nature, and he was dealt to Pittsburgh at the deadline, kicking off this wonderful sequence:
- Hossa is traded to Pittsburgh
- Pittsburgh loses in Cup Final to Detroit
- Hossa turns down five-year deal with Pittsburgh citing desire to win Cup
- Hossa signs one-year deal in Detroit
- Detroit loses in Cup Final to...Pittsburgh
- Hossa says "screw this" and signs a 12-year deal in Chicago
- Chicago wins three cups in five years. /
If you're keeping track, Marian Hossa has played in five of the last eight Cup Finals along with six of the last eight Western Conference Finals. Dude's been around the block is what I'm saying. And while it's no exaggeration to say that Chicago will likely end up getting hosed by a deal that bets on Hossa aging like Jaromir Jagr, three cups in five years will be a pretty decent security blanket for Chicago to clutch when Hossa and Seabrook's deals are looking ugly down the road.
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Marcus wrote a nice piece the other day ruminating on Sean McIndoe's rather mediocre forecast for Dallas over the next five years. Here's the gist of McIndoe's reasoning for ranking the Stars a mere #13 on his list of teams most likely to host a cup by 2020:
[...] we’re not giving bonus points for fun here, so we have to look at facts. And the facts say the Stars still aren’t all that good. They’ve only made the playoffs once in the last seven years, finishing a disappointing sixth in the tough Central last season. Their farm system is just OK, the Jason Spezza contract is going to start looking bad soon, and they’re spending an awful lot on goaltending that still doesn’t figure to be much more than average.
All that said, the Stars look like a team that’s ready to make The Leap, that transition we see every few years where a mediocre team is suddenly in the conference finals one year and a Cup favorite the next. Teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks have done it, and it always seems so obvious in hindsight that it was about to happen. If the Stars are next, nobody will be especially surprised.
That’s a big "if," though — there’s a world of difference between looking like the next big thing and actually getting there. The Stars have been sitting on the runway for a few years now. It’s time to see if they can actually take off.
It's not the most data-heavy analysis, but I love McIndoe's writing, and there's a good dose of subjectivity with predictions like these, so I'm not going to angrily don my blogger glasses and type too furiously. That said, McIndoe ranked the Ducks at #2 on his list, and while I promised I wouldn't do this, I am now going to totally renege on my word and rail against his lower-than-warranted ranking of the Stars' five-year window.
Okay, so here's what he said about the Ducks, just to give you context:
Let’s be clear: Kesler’s contract is still awful. But it does underline a key fact about this current iteration of the Ducks: They’re going for it. Between Kesler’s deal, and the even bigger ones belonging to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks are all in. All those players are at least 30 and will almost certainly see their play decline sharply before their contracts have expired. Legend says that in 1519, Hernan Cortes ordered his men to burn their boats so that they’d have no choice but to conquer Mexico. In modern times, the Anaheim Ducks burned their salary cap to ensure a Stanley Cup. There’s no way back now.
And it just might work, because the Ducks are very good. They nearly beat Chicago last year, and with apologies to that Hawks team, Anaheim will probably go into this year as the Western favorite. And as much as the Ducks might love to feed off an "all or nothing" sense of urgency, that’s probably at least a little bit overstated — this is not a team that’s staring down one last shot at a title before the wrecking balls come. It’s always tough to predict how star players will age, and it’s all but certain that the Ducks will find themselves in a world of cap pain well before all those big contracts expire, but it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ve got at least another two or three swings before that happens.
I'm not sure in what universe the Kesler contract constitutes "going for it" while the (shorter) Spezza contract is somehow just a ticking time bomb, but anyhow. Do you know what happens after scoring forwards turn 30? Do you? Well, here is what happens:
In addition, we now have an estimate of how even strength scoring ability changes through a player's 30's. On average, players retain about 90% of their scoring through age 29, but the drop from there is pretty sharp -- they hit 80% at age 31, 70% at age 32-33, and 60% at age 35.
Perry and Getzlaf are already on the downward side of their estimated peaks, and the Ducks aren't as deep behind their top three scorers as you might think. Also, they were kind of insanely lucky last year, which is okay if think they can repeat their one-goal fortunes after a tepid offseason. Most likely, they will regress, but of course they could have another crazy year, and John Gibson portends good things for Anaheim in the most important position overall. Still, we're talking about probability for winning it all here, and the Ducks' roster, while solid and probably the best in their division, doesn't exactly scream "dynasty waiting to happen."
Anyway, what does this all mean for the Stars? Well, I see Dallas as a team version of 2008 Marian Hossa right now. They haven't quite made it to the big time as a group yet, and while they have some nice individual accolades, people aren't really going to take them seriously until they prove something on the big stage. They seem primed to do that in ways few other teams are.
We don't have to compare them just to Anaheim though. Let's poke holes in some other top teams in the Good Conference. Los Angeles? You have a goalie there whose contract makes Kari's look like a brilliant bargain, as well as a couple other giant boat anchor contracts for bad players (even assuming they're able to disappear Richards) and an aging core of forwards led by impending UFA Kopitar. St. Louis? Their goalie situation is as muddled as Dallas's right now, and Paul Stastny sure isn't doing them any favors one year into his deal (but don't worry, they're managed by Doug Armstrong). San Jose is even shakier in net and older up front, and Chicago just gutted their team and added Seabrook's contract to the massively-leveraged group of long-term deals they're carrying. Even Nashville has big questions blocking their path to a Cup; despite one of the league's best defense corps and a goalie in Rinne who is fabulous when he's healthy, that team has the scoring depth of a soapy dollar car wash puddle. (And they aren't exactly flush with cash when it comes to making a big move to get them over the hill, either.)
Really, try to find a team sitting prettier than Dallas in the short and longer term. It's harder than you'd think. Tampa is probably the easy choice from the East--any team from the East probably has an easier path to a Cup than one from out West--but let's see what happens with Stamkos's deal this year before we praise this team too much.
When it comes to five-year windows, I just don't see how the Stars aren't just about as close to where you would want to be on forward and defense* as you can get. Young stud leading your D-corps? Check. Solid, productive veterans supporting them? Oduya, Demers and Goose are a (metaphorically) big check, even if only two of them are still here next season. Elite scoring talent locked up for cheap? Check. A fantastic young captain for narrative purposes? Check.
The goaltending, yes. We know, you all know, everybody knows. But they really did double their chances of getting average-to-good goaltending with the Niemi pickup, and Campbell/Desrosiers are not nothing. One season of Kari being confunded does not a burgeoning young franchise undo, especially when you have a (finally!) capable alternative right there.
I'm not getting paid by Jim Lites or anything here, I promise. But as far as the organization goes, Tom Gaglardi has been instantly willing to spend to the cap. Nill doesn't have a perfect record at the front desk, but can you name three GMs you would trust more? The Stars have a lineup in which Mattias Janmark could end up seeing significant minutes because he deserves them. The Stars have Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg signed for 11 combined years for relative peanuts. The defense, while not imperfect, doesn't have room for prospects like Stephen Johns or Esa Lindell.
Most teams have a glaring weakness of some kind in the system. It might be their thin prospect system, second-tier defense, difficulty scoring, or perhaps the lack of a "true" number one defenseman. The Stars' biggest problem is that they had one season where their goalie was really bad and both of their backup options cratered. That's fixable through either self-correction by the goalie or outside help from another 'tender. Jim Nill has provided for both options.
Sure, I can't discount the possibility that something else will go wrong for Dallas this year. One season can be fluky; just look at Ottawa, Calgary and, of course, Anaheim. But just as Hossa finally landed on a team where his top-tier talents found a Cup, so should the Stars expect great things at some point over the next five years. Championships are never guaranteed no matter how good you are--that's how the playoffs work--but it's hard to find many teams that have improved their odds for competing for one soon more than the Dallas Stars have.
*That is, those areas in which you can actually measure and predict things, unlike the black art of goaltending