Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Stars better off remaining patient
By Richard Durrett ESPNDallas.com
The smartest thing Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk can do the next few weeks is resist the temptation to let the standings be his guide.
The trade deadline is less than three weeks away, and the Stars are one of a gaggle of teams vying for one of the final playoff spots. One night they look like they're capable of getting there, behind strong goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and just enough key plays at the right moments, but the next night they can't score a big goal or finish off an opponent to get a win.
So it's safe to say more than halfway into the season that the Stars are an inconsistent team. They aren't good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup, but they haven't given up hopes of making the playoffs, either.
Jamie Benn is the headliner of the core group of players the Stars can build around for the future.
For a team in danger of missing the postseason party for a fourth consecutive season, it might sound odd to advocate even more patience. But that's what's needed now. Making a move or two to bolster this current edition only -- at the price of some young talent, for instance -- won't help create a big winning window of opportunity in the future.
The Stars have some money. Owner Tom Gaglardi reiterated Wednesday that his team won't stay near the salary-cap basement for long. But that doesn't mean Nieuwendyk will open up the club's wallet and start handing out money for short-term gain.
"It's dangerous to work that way," Nieuwendyk said this week. "You can't just say, 'OK, you've got a bag of money. Go buy some players.' History shows that doesn't equate to success."
It's not easy to tell fans, management or even the group sales and corporate sponsorship folks working hard in the three-floor Stars office building in Frisco to remain patient. It's tough enough now trying to fill American Airlines Center. Try doing it next season if the team hasn't been to the playoffs since before Barack Obama was elected president.
"We all want to make the playoffs and would like to think this team has the character to make a push for the playoffs," Nieuwendyk said, "but I also have a responsibility to have discussions with teams, and I think you have to keep an eye on the future."
In other words: If there's a deal that makes sense for the club, Nieuwendyk won't be afraid to make it, even if it appears to sacrifice something in the short term.
Gaglardi believes the Stars can trade some pieces now and not give up on the current season. And he might be right, especially if a trade were to net a young, offensive forward who can score goals.
But Nieuwendyk's first priority has to be making his club better for next season and the seasons after that. If he can satisfy that goal and his current team still makes the playoffs, that's great. But he can't get into a make-the-playoffs-this-season-at-all-costs mindset right now.
That means it's time to make some calls and let other teams know the Stars have some players they'd be willing to trade. At the top of that list: Steve Ott and Nicklas Grossman.
This isn't an indictment of either player. Both have value but if dealt won't necessarily hurt the team long term. Ott is being paid as if he's a top-six forward, and he just isn't quite at that level. He's a gritty player willing to pay the price to make plays. But his strength is as an irritant on a third line. There's bound to be a team hoping for a Stanley Cup push that would love to have Ott -- even at $3.2 million each of the next two seasons -- making life difficult on the opponent. Ott is good enough that if included in a nice package, he should net an elite prospect and maybe some additional depth help.
Grossman is in the final year of his contract and would be a true rental player for a contending team. He has good size and plays solid defense but likely will want $3 million or more in a new deal this offseason. Frankly, Mark Fistric has played better defense this season and is more affordable. Fistric is a restricted free agent this offseason and someone the Stars should consider locking up long term. That makes Grossman expendable.
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Those aren't the only candidates for a trade deadline departure. For the right deal, Mike Ribeiro could be dealt. But this is a team that lacks scoring as it is, and Ribeiro has just one more season left on his contract for $5 million. It would take a special package for me to deal him.
Sheldon Souray has been solid for this team but turns 36 in July. If there's a team willing to trade some young talent, I'm listening.
Realistically, Brenden Morrow isn't going anywhere. The injury concerns, not to mention the $4.1 million left on his contract for next season, make it difficult to imagine a team willing to take him on. So the captain remains.
Remember that any deal must also allow the Stars to stay above the cap floor, so they can't simply dump a bunch of contracts. But Nieuwendyk should be exploring any and all options to increase the club's talent pool for next season and beyond.
He's already identified some of the core players he believes will help lead the Stars to contention in the future. The headliner of that group is Jamie Benn. The club's best player is just 22 years old and should only get better. Goalie Lehtonen is also part of that group, acquired for a defensive prospect a few years ago when Nieuwendyk determined the Marty Turco era was over. Defensemen Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley have long-term deals with the club. So does Loui Eriksson, a 26-year-old forward with plenty of skill.
Now the club must get some more pieces around them in the form of hungry, young players with upside and a few veterans who can help hold everything together.
"We have some good players, but we don't have enough depth," Gaglardi said. "Joe has started the process of building around a young group. We have to continue that plan and build that depth, especially with the top six forwards."
Of course, the trade deadline isn't the only time Nieuwendyk can make moves such as these. If he doesn't get the deal he wants, he can wait until July and try again. But sometimes knowing a team can have a player for the stretch drive makes the difference in getting a better prospect or a more appealing package of players. Just ask Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who traded Mark Teixeira at just the right time -- with a year and a half on his contract -- to get the maximum haul in return.
"There is patience required here," Nieuwendyk said. "It's frustrating because everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup. That's always the goal. But I'm encouraged by some of our prospects that are going to be turning pro. We have college players that are some of the tops in the country and other prospects that need a little more time. We have good young players here, so we have to focus on that and what makes our team better going forward."
That's right, even if it means no playoff hockey in Dallas before the next presidential election.
Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.