Analysis: Who Can the Dallas Stars Target in this Offseason’s UFA Bargain Bin?
Jim Nill loves landing the big fish. He likely won’t have the cap to do that for the 2021-2022 season. But this offseason’s bargain bin offers plenty of small fish who can play big games.
This article is gonna look, feel, and probably be moot. The Dallas Stars have $15M to work with. Most of that will go to Miro Heiskanen. A dash of that will go to Jason Dickinson and Joel Kiviranta. The rest will go towards one open spot at forward and one open spot at defense.
In the universe where Jim Nill gets exactly what he wants, those open spots will include bringing back Oleksiak, and getting the big, middle-six fish in Blake Coleman; who is doing everything in his power to be more expensive by the game. But what if Coleman wants too much? What if Oleksiak wants too much? What if expansion does too little to ease the Stars’ cap burden?
Nill has always been fond of the bargain bin. In fact, some of the criticisms of Nill tend to be directed at his interest in what some consider ‘superfluous’ veteran stopgaps. Sometimes they work out, as Andrej Sekera and Corey Perry did. Sometimes they don’t, as Martin Hanzal and Jiri Hudler did not. Unlike years past, Nill will be tight against the cap with only a few roster spots to spare, and he already has the right mix of veterans and youth.
The proverbial bargain bin is unofficially reserved for arbitrary depth and fill-ins, should injuries hit. But not always. While there’s little incentive for Nill to do his customary Salvation Army shopping, there’s also little risk. What treasures could this year’s bargain bin hold?
(All projected contract numbers are taken from Evolving-Hockey)
(D) Jani Hakanpaa
Projected Cap Hit: 1 year at $1.29M
The 6’5 Finnish blueliner has led an un-glamorous career thus far. Drafted in 2010 by the Blues, he returned to Finland after finishing his entry-level deal. Hakanpaa’s stout play in the Liiga earned him a contract with Anaheim in 2019. Eventually he was traded to the Hurricanes where he became a certified part of their bottom pair, ultimately solidifying himself in the playoffs, playing more minutes per game than veteran Jake Gardiner and blue chip prospect Jake Bean. But is he any good? With 62 NHL games played, it’s impossible to say. However, his Wins Above Replacement (looking solely at defensive metrics) leave some potential clues.
Granted, this is only data for this season. I wouldn’t read too much into this. Especially in Hakanpaa’s case. But he’s a big, right-shot defenceman who plays a sturdy shutdown game. He doesn’t have quick feet, but he tracks the puck well and could be perfect in moving Sekera to his natural side, or — ideally — Thomas Harley. Why wouldn’t you be all over this if you were in Jim Nill’s mustache (even figuratively that sounds bad, so apologies)?
This is not a traditional Nill move. He’s only ever traded for, or signed established players. It’s practically written on stone tablets: either young players coming up through the system make the cut, or someone with tenure is brought in to accentuate the youth. Hakanpaa is neither a veteran nor a prospect. As a 29-year old rookie, he’s a mystery box. Interestingly, the only exception that comes to mind with Nill’s More Veterans rule was Stephen Johns: a player who found a meaningful life after hockey, but who was also pretty good at hockey. In terms of fit, and cost, Hakanpaa would be fantastic on paper.
(D) Cody Ceci
Projected Cap Hit: 3 Years at $3.8M
If you follow the analytics community, you know there are always whipping boys. Sometimes it says more about the player and the false perception GM’s value in spite of the evidence on the contrary (like Jack Johnson). But every so often, the analytics say more about the fluidity of the data itself than the player. I’m not sure where Cody Ceci lands on that spectrum — a player who struggled in Ottawa and Toronto — but Pittsburgh fans were pleased when all was said and done.
Last season Ceci contributed to the Penguins’ shot quality, where they were better off with him than without. His defense was a significant improvement over years past. And unlike Esa Lindell, who was good defensively at even-strength but atrocious on the PK this season (and has been over the last three seasons), Ceci showed solid defensive chops regardless of the gamestate. I know a projected cap hit of $3M per isn’t exactly a “bargain” for a player who has fluctuated throughout his career as a depth defenceman. But let’s say Dallas loses Oleksiak, who is projected to make over $4M with a predicted term of five years. Isn’t Ceci a bargain by comparison? Especially knowing that Ceci won’t get in Heiskanen’s way? There’s a good chance Ceci will be signed for less than is projected thanks to the flat cap. It’s not the top-four pair anyone is asking for, but Ceci could be a fit next to Harley as well.
(D) Zdeno Chara
Projected Cap Hit: 3 Years at $3.14M
Nill loves veteran experience, so why wouldn’t he love Chara? His cap hit is hard to project. He only made $795,000 on his one-year deal with the Capitals, so the projected three-year term is highly unlikely. It’s also possible he straight up retires, although he hasn’t made that decision just yet. This move would make more sense if Dallas wants to keep Klingberg, and wants to make the future cap work by potentially trading Lindell. In which case, Chara would be an excellent stopgap. Chara isn’t what he once was, but over the last three seasons, his defense has remained steady and strong.
(D) Kevan Miller
Projected Cap Hit: 1 Year at $1.32M
Chances are, you know Miller through his face-punching highlight reel. That or you just hate how he spells his first name. Sidenote: as a writer, I can appreciate pedantic vexations as much as I can appreciate the fact that spelling itself is as lowkey arbitrary as it is dramatically organic. And yet, Miller has been a very quiet, very effective shutdown defenceman. Unlike Hakanpaa and Ceci, Miller has been playing top four minutes on a contending team for most of his career. His defense translates incredibly well on the PK. The big asterisk here is that Miller has never been healthy. He missed all of 2019-2020, and suffered another injury in this year’s playoffs. Asterisk or not, there’s a lot to like. Miller has been consistent throughout his career, making him a potentially cheap Oleksiak replacement who, like Ceci, would know his role next to Heiskanen...(again) assuming he could finally stay healthy.
(F) Josh Leivo
Projected Cap Hit: 1 Year at $1.01M
If Coleman costs too much, Stars fans will feel betrayed. And they might blame Nill for not doing everything in his power to bring Coleman home. After all, Nill ‘s argument should write itself. You’ve already won one Cups (probably two soon enough), except now you get to come home, and make a little more money with a team that has Cup aspirations too. Still, there’s no guarantee. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to extra Buy a Vacation Home money. In Leivo, Dallas would be getting a similar, and similarly versatile player. Leivo is like Hakanpaa in that he’s another one of these mystery box players; like the deep sea hatchetfish version of Coleman — does all the same things the big fish do, but because it’s done it in the shadows, he’s never had a chance to shine. There’s an obvious explanation for that: maybe he’s just not as good. But it’s called the bargain bin for a reason. Can Leivo adapt to a moderately bigger role the way players like Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, and Phillip Danault have? He’s quietly creative, works hard for his puck money, and if nothing else, he can make Jordan Binnington blush.
(F) Brock McGinn
Projected Cap Hit: 3 Years at $2.68M
Dallas is pretty weak at left wing. Especially if Dallas rolls with Hintz, Seguin, and Benn down the middle. All that’s left is Robertson on the left wing, and a cauldron of goulash below. Dickinson can play left wing, but it’s not his natural position. Kiviranta, meanwhile, is a bit of an unknown. With McGinn, he would act as the Cogliano replacement. He had a solid year last season with Carolina in a bottom six role. If you look at his career numbers, they’re not half this good, so don’t be fooled by the spiffy charts. Part of that is owed to the fact that McGinn got significant icetime in patches with Sebastian Aho. If your inside voice is screaming ‘we don’t need to replace Cogliano!’ I agree. But by bringing back Blake Comeau, it’s clear that Dallas wants to replicate or bring back some variation of the FCC line. For better or worse, this is something Rick Bowness covets in his system. A player like McGinn is no Coleman, but you get what you pay for, and in McGinn, you’re paying very little to strengthen a defensive system that wants forwards who will defend first, and ask scoring questions later.
(F) Mathieu Joseph
Projected Cap Hit: 1 Year at $737,500
If you’re wondering how Tampa consistently does it, look no further than the value they find from names out of a hat. Sometimes the names in the hat end up elsewhere, like Marchessault, and Verhaeghe. Sometimes the names in the hat are kept, like Cirelli and Gourde. This season, it’s Joseph we’re drawing. He scored almost 20 points averaging less than 10 minutes a night. Judging by his expected goals above replacement over the last three seasons, a breakout year feels imminent. He’s a smooth skating, two-way player (emphasis on both ways) who happens to be young and cost-controlled. Why would he be available, you might ask? Expansion: Joseph is one of the forwards who will be left exposed.
Getting Joseph could be tricky. Why trade for a player you could lose to expansion yourself? Dallas is gonna leave one of Radek Faksa or Jason Dickinson exposed. However, if they do intend to play Hintz, Seguin, and Benn down the middle, it might be prudent to leave two players exposed who are making $2-$3M per year just to potentially play 4th line center. It wouldn’t be popular, but if you lose Faksa to gain Coleman money, with Joseph as a throw-in, that’s what you call a first-world problem (or, depending on how you feel about Faksa’s trajectory, addition by subtraction).
(F) Zach Aston-Reese (RFA)
Projected Cap Hit: 3 Years at $2.12M
It’s worth reiterating the importance of considering the possibility of exposing both Faksa, and Dickinson for a middle six winger. If Dallas loses Faksa, Dickinson replaces him. If they lose Dickinson, they still have Faksa. If they’re left with both, we’re back to where we started. We can talk about our personal opinions about the type of winger we wish had, but I’m just operating under the assumption that Bowness wants more of the same. In which case, Aston-Reese offers Dallas something they currently don’t have in their forward group: a true PK specialist.
His defensive numbers at even-strength are strong too, but on the PK, he’s elite at keeping the high-danger areas clean. As much as fans love to feel validated by the success of a team like the New York Islanders, Dallas differs from them in one critical way. Part of the Isles’ success comes from the fact that their defense has translated on the PK (they ranked 6th this season) whereas Dallas hasn’t reconciled the two (Dallas ranked 19th). In Aston-Reese, the Stars would have someone that could defend the puck at 5-on-5, or 4-on-5. Dallas has lacked this element of defensive play. In fact, many of their PK regulars provided little help. Comeau was not good on the PK this season. Neither was Faksa. Dickinson? Nope. In fact, the only regular who excelled on the PK was Cogliano. So perhaps Dallas does need a Cogliano replacement. Aston-Reese would fit that bill.
‘Optics’ are the fancy stats of public decision-making. If Nill does nothing, he’s gonna look weak. If he does something, he’ll look strong. If he does something expected, it’ll be praised. If he does something unexpected, it’ll be questioned. But what does that truly mean? What value is actually being transferred or added?
As much as I would love to see Coleman in a Stars uniform, Dallas has a lot of decisions to make about their future. Benn and Seguin are going nowhere, while Hintz and Robertson are only going up. Does dedicating a small but decent cap chunk to a middle six forward really improve Dallas once Radulov and Pavelski are gone? How much money will be needed to fix the blueline if Klingberg isn’t brought back? Or if Harley isn’t quite ready during Dallas’ competitive window? I’m not personally a fan of every player we’ve looked at, but most of them have one thing in common: they’re all relatively young. As much as fans lament the Stars’ injury problem, they’re also an older team. Sure, you can’t control for unforeseen circumstances, but older players getting hurt isn’t unpredictable either.
The bargain bin is a nice way to hedge your bets when you’re not sure if you want to move forward, laterally, or not at all. Besides, I’m sure fans remember Patrick Eaves with remarkable clarity. After all, Eaves was supposed to be ‘just’ depth. But he turned into a fantastic top-six winger for a brief stretch in 2016-2017. His performance then turned into the pick that would become Jake Oettinger. The lesson? Just because something comes cheap doesn’t mean it offers less than something that doesn’t.