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Off-Season Game Plan: Dallas Stars

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Scott Cullen
6/5/2013 10:20:47 AM
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The Dallas Stars were in playoff contention for much of the year, leading up to the trade deadline, but after shedding some veterans, they stumbled late, and five straight losses to end the season made it five consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Stars team that has changed its General Manager, is still looking for a coach, and will be aiming for a new look going forward.

By hiring Jim Nill out of the Detroit Red Wings organization, to replace Joe Nieuwendyk, the Stars are charting a new course. Nill needs to find a replacement behind the bench for Glen Gulutzan and there are many options. Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault, Tom Renney and perhaps Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett are all experienced choices while Texas Stars coach Willie Desjardins and Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill could get consideration as well.

Coming from Detroit, Nill is likely to favour a puck possession game that has been the cornerstone of Detroit's success and while it's not easy to duplicate when you don't have Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, the Stars have some skill up front, but can probably use more if they are going to get back into the playoff picture.

There's no rush, as the Stars have a solid group of young players and Nill is expected to build through the draft. He told the Dallas Morning News, "After studying the organization and where we have our players in the minors or juniors or Europe, I think this draft offers the opportunity to set ourselves up for a long time going forward."

Nill has had several opportunities to be a GM in the past, but he was finally swayed by Dallas, an organization that, while they've missed the postseason for five straight years, has also improved their organizational depth, with a number of promising young players ready to contribute in the next couple years.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Jim Nill/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Jamie Benn 73.07 41 12 21 33 -12 $5.25M
Ray Whitney 73.07 32 11 18 29 +1 $4.5M
Loui Eriksson 67.24 48 12 17 29 -9 $4.25M
Cody Eakin 64.52 48 7 17 24 +1 $637K
Antoine Roussel 62.73 39 7 7 14 +3 $613K
Vernon Fiddler 61.57 46 4 13 17 +2 $1.8M
Erik Cole 60.98 47 9 4 13 -6 $4.5M
Ryan Garbutt 60.32 36 3 7 10 +1 $575K
Reilly Smith 57.15 37 3 6 9 0 $900K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Eric Nystrom 59.46 48 7 4 11 -3 UFA $1.4M
Tom Wandell 53.54 18 1 0 1 0 RFA $893K

Stars Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

A protracted contract negotiation likely hampered Jamie Benn and the result was a season slightly less productive than the level he had already established to this point in his career. The 23-year-old is a great combination of size and skill and could be a point-per-game scorer with the right linemates. He's the cornerstone piece as this franchise builds for the future.

Ray Whitney turned 41 shortly after the regular season ended and, while he missed time with a broken foot, it was the second straight season in which he scored better than 0.90 points per game (29 points in 32 games). Since 1990-1991, Adam Oates is the only other player in the league to cross that 0.90 points per game threshold twice after turning 38-years-old. He's also had very strong possession numbers in those seasons. As such, the Stars should feel comfortable enough that Whitney can provide offence again next season.

A staple on most underrated lists for several seasons, Loui Eriksson's production dipped (29 points in 48 games) last year after three straight seasons with at least 70 points, so he may be more properly rated now. Nevertheless, he's a skilled forward who plays a strong defensive game as well so, even coming off a down season, the 27-year-old remains a central figure on one of Dallas' scoring lines.

Acquired from Washington for Mike Ribeiro, 22-year-old Cody Eakin had a solid first season with the Stars, the speedy forward providing perhaps a little more offence than expected at this stage of his career. Eakin could potentially work his way onto a scoring line and is already a reliable contributor in the Stars' top nine.

He didn't play a lot (9:24 per game), but agitator Antoine Roussel was more productive than expected, based on 36 points in 146 career AHL games. There was some serious luck involved, the kind of which isn't likely to be duplicated, but there can still be room in a fourth-line role for a guy who can get under the skin of opponents.

Checking forward Vernon Fiddler takes a beating in the possession game, but also takes the hardest minutes, starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone and facing quality opposition. Put into a more significant role for the final month, he tallied 11 points in 13 games, which was a significant departure from his previous scoring (six points in the first 33 games), but it might suggest that, with the right linemates, Fiddler can chip in some offence from the third line.

The Stars surely hoped that they would get more production out of power forward Erik Cole, who didn't record an even-strength assist in 28 games with Dallas despite playing nearly 17 minutes per game. A new regime may investigate sending Cole back to the Eastern Conference, where he's been more productive but, since he's one year removed from a 35-goal season, it would also be reasonable to give him another shot in a top six role.

A hard-working energy winger, Ryan Garbutt has traveled an unlikely path to the NHL, through Brown University, the Central Hockey League, ECHL and a couple of AHL stops, but the 27-year-old played all of his games in Dallas last year. He's on a very reasonable one-way deal, but his fate will be determined by the new regime. It's that way for all players, but especially those on the fringe of the roster.

Reilly Smith scored 58 goals in his last two collegiate seasons, yet only finished with three goals in 37 games for the Stars. There is still reason to hope that he can be an offensive contributor, and despite his lack of points, had good possession stats.

After 229 games with the Stars, Tom Wandell's role has decreased, playing a career-low 8:27 per game in 2013, and he split last season between the AHL and NHL. With a number of forward prospects bucking for a spot, Wandell could be hard-pressed to stick around.

It's certainly possible that a few Stars prospects will be pushing for jobs next season and that may be the best plan of attack, taking the top one or two from a group that includes Brett Ritchie, Alex Chiasson and Matt Fraser.

Otherwise, there could be room for free agents like Nathan Horton, Ryane Clowe or Stephen Weiss, while Valtteri Filppula, who has a history with new GM Jim Nill from Detroit, could be a natural fit in a second-line centre role. Or maybe Brad Richards, if he's a compliance buyout in New York, would sign at a discount rate coming off a down season.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Alex Goligoski 72.88 47 3 24 27 +4 $4.6M
Trevor Daley 67.66 44 4 9 13 +1 $3.3M
Stephane Robidas 67.27 48 1 12 13 +2 $3.3M
Brenden Dillon 65.85 48 3 5 8 +1 $900K
Aaron Rome 62.42 27 0 5 5 -2 $1.5M
Philip Larsen 61.26 32 2 3 5 -10 $1.025M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Jordie Benn 63.33 26 1 5 6 -4 UFA $525K

Stars Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

It may have gone largely unnoticed, but Alex Goligoski scored at a career-best rate (0.57 points per game) while playing more than 22 minutes per game. Goligoski doesn't play a physical game, but he's mobile and has strong possession skills.

Steady and unspectacular, Trevor Daley has played more than 21 minutes per game for the last five seasons, averaging between 0.29 and 0.33 points per game in all five seasons while missing less than four games per season.

At 36-year-old, Stephane Robidas remains a significant part of the Dallas blueline, playing more than 22 minutes for each of the last five seasons and routinely taking on the toughest defensive assignments. Robidas plays a hard-nosed game and, going into the final year of his deal, could be an interesting trade chip should the Stars want to get younger on the blueline.

Brenden Dillon is coming off an impressive rookie season, one in which he started in a depth role, but quickly earned more ice time and more difficult matchups. Dillon has good size and isn't afraid to use it, ranking fifth among defencemen with 133 hits.

It's taken parts of seven NHL seasons for Aaron Rome to accrue 201 career games and, after signing with the Stars as a free agent last summer, he struggled. He's 29-years-old and has yet to emerge beyond a part-time role, so that's really the only fair expectation for him going forward.

After making some progress in 2011-2012, Philip Larsen took a step back last season, playing fewer than 15 minutes per game while playing just two-thirds of the shortened schedule and yet he still had the worst plus-minus rating among Stars defencemen. Larsen is still just 23 and has mobility and puck skills that show potential, but he needs a strong season if he's going to hold off challenges from an increasingly deep pool of prospects.

6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak played 16 games for Dallas last season, his first as a pro, and seems like a good bet to make the jump next season, but the Stars have options from within their organization. Kevin Connauton and Cameron Gaunce were both acquired last season and have enough pro experience that either one could be called up to fill-in, while Joe Morrow, picked up from Pittsburgh in the Brenden Morrow trade, has more long-term potential.

If the Stars wish to have a more immediate impact on the blueline, they could dabble in free agency, with steady vets like Ian White, Jordan Leopold, Ron Hainsey and Toni Lydman among those that would add stability and maybe give the Stars a little more time to be patient with their young defencemen.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Kari Lehtonen 71.42 36 15 14 3 2.66 .916 $5.9M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Richard Bachman 50.02 13 6 5 0 3.25 .885 RFA $625K

There are a dozen goalies that have played at least 150 games over the last three seasons and Kari Lehtonen ranks sixth among them with a .917 save percentage in that span. He's a real asset for the Stars, so long as he stays healthy, and that has been less of a problem in Dallas than it was earlier in his career with Atlanta.

When it comes to the backup spot, Richard Bachman has a .901 save percentage in 32 games (after a dismal .885 save percentage in 13 games in 2013), so he's okay, as a cost-effective option, but also easily replaceable if the Stars want someone more proven or someone that gives them a better chance on the nights that Lehtonen needs a break.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Brett Ritchie RW Niagara (OHL) 41-35-76, +35, 53 GP
Jamie Oleksiak D Texas (AHL) 6-27-33, +19, 59 GP
Alex Chiasson RW Texas (AHL) 13-22-35, +3, 57 GP
Radek Faksa C Kitchener (OHL) 9-22-31, -1, 39 GP
Joe Morrow D Texas (AHL) 5-14-19, -4, 66 GP
Ludwig Bystrom D Modo (SEL) 3-3-6, +7, 30 GP
Matej Stransky RW Saskatoon (WHL) 40-45-85, +32, 72 GP
Jack Campbell G Texas (AHL) 19-13-3, 2.65 GAA, .905 SV%
Patrik Nemeth D Texas (AHL) 1-11-12, +11, 47 GP
Kevin Connauton D Texas (AHL) 9-22-31, -10, 69 GP

A 6-foot-4 power forward prospect who really came into his own playing alongside top Islanders prospect Ryan Strome in Niagara, Brett Ritchie finished the year in the American Hockey League, scoring four points in five regular season games then adding two points in nine playoff games. As the Stars get bigger and younger, Ritchie is a big piece of their future, but might be well-served to spend some time in the AHL to establish that he can score at the pro level.

While Jamie Oleksiak did get a chance to play with Dallas last season (two points, minus-5 in 16 games), he was overmatched when it came to puck possession. That's fine, he's a monstrous 20-year-old who skates very well and he was tremendous in the AHL as a first-year pro. Maybe he needs a little more seasoning, but it's entirely possible that he's a part of the Dallas blueline next season and for many years to come.

22-year-old winger Alex Chiasson had a decent first pro season (13 G, 22 A, 57 GP) in the AHL before getting a call up to Dallas, where he burst onto the scene with six goals and seven points in seven games. Scoring on 46.2% of his shots could set up preposterous expectations, because he won't do that over a larger sample of games, but he has good size and skill, enough that he could potentially find his way to a scoring line in Dallas next season.

A first-round pick last summer, Radek Faksa endured an injury-plagued 2012-2013 campaign. He's only 19, so young enough to bounce back from it and continue to develop his offensive ability to combine with an already sound defensive approach.

The 23rd overall pick in 2011, Joe Morrow was moved out of the Penguins organization fairly quickly, part way through his first pro season, so there are naturally some questions raised about whether his stock has fallen, but Morrow played better upon joining Texas in the AHL. He skates and handles the puck well, so he could be challenging for a spot in Dallas soon, maybe after another year (or most of it) of development.

A second-round pick in 2012, Ludwig Bystrom has played 51 games in the Swedish Elite League over the last three years, which is quite a bit of time playing against men for a player who is still 18-years-old. Since the Stars have a decent crop of young defencemen already, there's no need to rush Bystrom and he can use the time to get stronger and round out his physical game.

Taken 11th overall in 2010, Jack Campbell was a very highly-touted goaltending prospect, but his play since then has been entirely uneven. He has a .907 save percentage in 52 AHL games so far, which doesn't suggest that he's ready for the NHL, but he's 21, so maybe over the next couple of seasons, he'll figure it out.

A big stay-at-home defenceman, 21-year-old Patrik Nemeth came over to North America last season and played well enough to remain in consideration. He doesn't have a lot of offensive upside, but could fill a strictly defensive role.

Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Matej Stransky has scored 79 goals over the last two seasons in the WHL. He has good size to go with that skill, so if he can handle the adjustment to the pros, Stransky might turn into a nice value selection.

Kevin Connauton was added in the Derek Roy trade and the 23-year-old is close to challenging for an NHL job after three years in the American Hockey League. He could be more physical and better without the puck, but he moves it well and had 11 points in 18 (regular season and playoff) games after he joined Texas.

When the Stars decided to clear out some veterans last season, they bolstered their prospect list, so they still have some quality options in the pipeiline oustside of the group mentioned above. Forwards Alexander Guptill and Devin Shore are still in college, Cameron Gaunce and John Klingberg add to the defence pool and winger Matt Fraser has merely scored 70 goals in two AHL seasons.

DRAFT
10th - Bo Horvat, Max Domi, Hunter Shinkaruk.
28th - Robert Hagg, Michael McCarron, J.T. Compher

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Stars have approximately $44.6M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 17 players.

Check out my possible Stars lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman.

What I said the Stars needed last year: One top six forward, one top nine forward, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman.

They added: Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy, Brenden Dillon, Aaron Rome.

TRADE MARKET
Erik Cole, Philip Larsen, Aaron Rome.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Jamie Benn (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
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