Stars keeping pace in West with Spezza deal

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
12:25
PM ET


Maybe you wondered if Jim Nill, who spent all of those years working behind the scenes with the Detroit Red Wings, would have the stuff to be a big-time NHL general manager on his own with the Dallas Stars.

Maybe you'll stop wondering now.

In one calendar year, Nill has stocked his team with two elite centers and has the Stars in a strong position to not just build on this season's surprise berth in the playoffs, but to make some noise next spring.

Nill followed his July 2013 acquisition of Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins in a blockbuster deal by acquiring disgruntled Ottawa center Jason Spezza on Tuesday, about an hour before the start of the free-agency period.

[+] EnlargeJason Spezza
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesJason Spezza gives the Stars a potent 1-2 punch at center alongside Tyler Seguin.
The Stars sent Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nicholas Paul and a second-round 2015 draft pick to Ottawa, which continues to reshape its roster. The Senators have lost their past two captains in successive years, with Daniel Alfredsson signing as a free agent last summer with Detroit.

The Stars also got prospect Ludwig Karlsson in the deal.

Chiasson, a 6-foot-4 winger, looks to have the most upside of the group, enjoying a strong start in his rookie season with the Stars but cooling off in the second half, finishing with 13 goals and 35 points (including six power-play goals and four game-winners).

He’ll presumably get a chance to play top-six minutes with a team that must redefine itself offensively. The Senators are coming off a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs despite remaining relatively healthy. They made surprise postseason appearances in each of the previous two seasons.

The Stars, of course, get the best player in the deal in Spezza, the second overall pick in 2001 who had spent his entire career in Ottawa and had grown tired of playing there.

Still, the move doesn’t come without question marks for Dallas. (Is there a deal of this magnitude that ever gets done without some questions about the players involved?)

Spezza has had injury issues, most notably back problems that limited him to just five regular-season games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He has played 80 or more games in a season just twice in his career.

Spezza remains a top talent, though, and has managed to collect 52 points in 56 postseason games. Those are numbers that will be important to the Stars, who pushed the Anaheim Ducks to six games in the first round of the playoffs this spring.

That series was instructive to Nill and Lindy Ruff, who was in his first year as the Stars’ coach.

Teams in the Western Conference must have the goods down the middle if they’re going to compete with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim struck pivot gold by acquiring Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks before the June 27 draft. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators have been scrambling to fill in down the middle as well.

The Stars began the draft period looking like it wouldn’t be in the running for players such as Spezza, who identified 10 teams to which he wouldn’t accept a trade.

And yet Nill and Ottawa GM Bryan Murray managed to get a deal done that gives the Stars a nice complement to Seguin, who blossomed with 37 goals (eight game-winners) last season after spending two tumultuous years in Boston, where the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 spent much of the time playing wing.

Now look around the Western Conference and contemplate these center combinations: Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in Los Angeles; Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler in Anaheim; Logan Couture and Joe Thornton (if he stays) in San Jose; and now Seguin and Spezza in Dallas.

In a matter of days, the balance of power has been dramatically altered in the West, home to a preponderance of the NHL’s top teams.

Spezza has one year left on a deal that pays him just $4 million in real money but comes with a $7 million cap hit. Nill will presumably be looking to extend Spezza, but that’s something to consider down the road. And if the Stars hit the skids, they could of course consider flipping Spezza at next season's trade deadline.

And let’s be honest: Frankly, the Stars aren’t quite there yet. But when you factor in Seguin, Spezza and Cody Eakin, who had 16 goals last season, the Stars’ complement of centers is impressive. Throw in Jamie Benn (34 goals), emerging Russian talent Valeri Nichushkin and new signing Ales Hemsky (who played some with Spezza after going to Ottawa at the trade deadline last season) on the wings and the Stars will be able to go toe-to-toe offensively with most of the competition in the West.

Defensively, the team is still maturing and we must admit a certain ongoing skepticism about goalie Kari Lehtonen staying healthy enough to carry the Stars beyond the first round of the playoffs.

Still, as the free-agent market opens, there is little question the Stars are better than they were a few hours ago and are forcing teams to scramble for other options.

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