Dallas!

This one will be short, I promise. – Also, we tried to link the orginal theme, but Youtube would have none of it. So in keeping with the theme of the article, new Dallas it is!

The Dallas Stars are one of those teams that most people don’t really think about anymore. We used to. Especially here in Edmonton. Since around 2008-2009 it seems like nobody has really paid much attention to them except in the area of bankruptcy and the decision not to trade Brad Richards.

So what exactly is happening in Dallas now?

Tom Gaglardi took over the team just over a year ago, buying it out of bankruptcy auction for approximately $240 million. The team has been working to find its financial footing since then. This past summer they made a small splash in the free-agency waters when they signed Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million and signed 40-year old Ray Whitney to a two-year deal for the same amount, with limited movement clauses. As luck would seem to have it for this franchise, though, the Jagr contract is likely to be curtailed, if not lost entirely, due to the current NHL lockout, while Whitney may not play for them until he is 42.

Gaglardi appears to be a responsible owner, and has made some very intriguing moves since taking over the Stars. He brought back Jim Lites, the former President of the Stars during their dominant years, to the same position he’d held before in order to get the franchise back on its feet. He also brought aboard Jason Farris, most recently of note as the author of Behind the Moves, a book detailing the moves and motives of GMs in the NHL, to be the head of Business Operations and Development. Aside from retaining Joe Nieuwendyk as GM, Gaglardi also brought Bob Gainey back as a consultant to Nieuwendyk, giving some veteran mentorship to the still-learning General Manager.

Reading through the Stars head office personnel gives the impression that this organization is well-outfitted for the NHL. Brad Jellis is their Head Strength and Conditioning coach, Les Jackson is an Assistant GM and head of Scouting and Development while Frank Provenzano is another Assistant GM in charge of Hockey Operations. This division of labour ensures that both departments get the full-time attention they need. They have employed Mark Janko as Director of Hockey Analytics and Administration, a crucial investment for a budgeted team, in addition to Video Coordinator, Kelly Forbes, a distinction that is not mirrored in some supposedly well-run Canadian franchises.

The scouting department is also well-manned. The Stars have eleven listed amateur scouts in addition to two professional scouts, a head of European Scouting, Kari Takko, and Director of Pro Scouting Paul McIntosh. Scott White is also listed as the Director of Minor League Operations and a Pro Scout.

Money is being spent in the right places, management positions needed to identify and acquire talent, not to mention the upper management needed to oversee and coordinate all of these combined efforts. The Stars’ ownership appears stable and fully invested in the process.

Stars On Ice

The Stars have a mediocre roster that is more or less accomplishing what one would expect. They aren’t really a playoff contending team and outside of Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson they lack any true budding stars around which a team might be built. There are a few interesting names here and there, Kari Lehtonen, Alex Goligoski, and Mark Fistric for example. But the team lacks any significant talent or prospect on the horizon that can excite the imagination of a fan base that is looking for a reason to cheer for this team.

The team has struggled recently and there does not appear to be any internal options available to improve. However, at the very least the organization has a deep pool of potential players that can, if all goes well, maintain the franchise for the time-being.

It is difficult to tell what the addition of Jagr and Whitney might have done for the team this year as the former has played a support role recently while the latter, though effective, is getting into Teemu Selanne country, and the Dallas roster does not have an abundance of players who might shelter or support these two elder statesmen of hockey.

Looking over the roster it is difficult for me to imagine this team finishing any higher than 11th in the West without over-achieving and some of the best players that the team has both in the present and immediate future are on the roster right now.

Keep Them Doggies Rollin’

Corey Pronman’s Hockey Prospectus has the Stars prospect pool ranked 13th in the league. Their two notable drafted players are Radek Faksa and Jack Campbell. After that Jamie Oleksiak, Reilly Smith, Ludvig Bystrom, and Scott Glennie are the players that most fans might find appealing. The depth available for the franchise is very strong, however the franchise is in need of a draft-day surprise, a franchise player they can surreptitiously acquire and develop to become that 1st line franchise star.

The drafting success of the Stars has been mixed of late. Through 2003 to 2005 the team drafted well, taking players such as Loui Eriksson, B.J. Crombeen, Niklas Grossman, Mark Fistric, Matt Niskanen, James Neal, and Tom Wandell. In the two years following, and leaving out the most recent draft years, the results have thus far been underwhelming. This is likely due to the financial troubles that previous owner Tom Hicks was suffering during that time. The Stars, unfortunately, bore the brunt of his fiscal woes and one imagines that scouting resources may have become rather limited during the final years of his ownership.

Draft picks were also scarce during that time as management was trading them to acquire players that might return the team to the post-season and, presumably, a profit.

This past season the Stars had to get creative to remain above the salary floor, picking up Eric Nystrom to make up the salary lost when the Rangers proved unable to rehabilitate Sean Avery. The rules around the salary floor may change in the current CBA negotiations. It remains to be seen what direction Gaglardi wants the franchise to take. As mentioned earlier, he certainly does not appear to be overly concerned with a larger payroll – he has increased the payroll by about $5 million – provided it can produce results. This is where the structure of their current contracts is intriguing.

The Stars have only four players signed to contracts that extend past the 2014-2015 season and as such the roster retains a great deal of positional flexibility. Others might call it uncertainty. Either way, the future of the Dallas Stars is anything but written in stone at this point.

At the end of the 2012-2013 season Dallas will have six unrestricted free agents: Jagr, Brendan Morrow, Derek Roy, Michael Ryder, Eric Nystrom, and Mark Fistric. There are several options open to Joe Nieuwendyk when those contracts expire. He might choose to re-sign one of those players, promote one or two from within their development system should they be ready (Reilly Smith, Scott Glennie and Matt Fraser seem to be the closest to the NHL), and then pursue one or two remaining players in free-agency. Another alternative would be to aggressively pursue free-agents for most of, if not all, the required positions in much the same way that Dale Tallon did in the 2011-2012 off-season.

There are no blue-chip prospects that Nieuwendyk needs to shelter behind free-agent veterans, nor are there any who could come in and become a cornerstone player.

At this moment Jamie Benn is their one franchise player, and he remains an unsigned RFA. The winger has become a notable player and would likely be either a 1st line LW on a good team or a very strong 2nd line LW on an outstanding team. To date, his numbers haven’t demonstrated that he alone can carry a team and inevitably he will need support in linemates and team depth for the team to be successful.

The reticence of management to sign Benn is not unusual amongst GMs this year. Many organizations appear to want to wait until the new CBA has been finalized, anticipating that terms will become more favourable for franchises negotiating second contracts. Given Dallas’ financial history this might be a mixture of both managerial prudence and fiscal restraint.

Texas Hold ‘Em

 

When the Stars refused to trade Brad Richards at the 2010-2011 trade deadline they essentially gambled on the chance of short-term income from a potential playoff series, against the long-term health of the organization in the form of picks and prospects.

The status of the team today, and the general lack of high-end potential in their development system is a consequence of that decision.

I was never too critical of the Stars for hanging on to Richards, even though I knew it was a poor decision. The Oilers refused to trade Luke Richardson, Curtis Joseph, and Todd Marchant when their contracts were expiring, despite trade offers, because the franchise needed those players to attempt to get to the playoffs. The income from those gates was considered more important than any players or draft picks they could get in return. In hindsight those were patently foolish decisions that mired the team in a long drought of mediocrity and futility, essentially preventing the very thing that those players had been retained to accomplish.

I can neither blame, nor feel sympathy for, the Dallas Stars being in the same position. That being said, learning from the mistakes of the past is a fundamental test of a functional organization (and most sentient organisms), and as such the impact on the Dallas Stars of losing Brad Richards ought to be examined by every NHL manager.

I Reckon…

Gaglardi and Nieuwendyk are in a precarious position. They need to increase their ticket sales; however ticket sales in Dallas are directly related to the performance of the team. The team faces a difficult task in trying to acquire the needed talent to improve, either by draft or trade, while steadily progressing, or at least offering the promise thereof to the fans.

They need to get better and they can’t afford to be bad in order to do it through the draft. Signing Jagr and Whitney is not the answer.

The Stars are in some ways an intriguing franchise. They seem to lack any distinguishable player or personality, outside perhaps of Benn and potentially Jagr, that would make fans in other markets sit up and take notice. However, ownership is quietly doing all the right things in the front office and depending on the decisions that that management group takes over the next few seasons, they could become a perennial playoff contender, though perhaps not a championship caliber team. Or they could fall flat on their faces and end up rebuilding the long way. There is even the chance they could relocate, if things get bad enough. Gaglardi tried to move one team to Canada already, might he try again?

***For the record, I don’t think Bettman will allow the NHL to leave the Texas market.***

Dallas appears to be a team primed to try and gather momentum gradually, building continually through the draft and taking calculated steps towards a return to the post-season. However, at this point the chances of a championship in the near future seem almost negligible.

All of that aside, I am left with the distinct impression that Gaglardi and Nieuwendyk have a more elaborate and ambitious plan than to simply try and improve incrementally over the course of a decade. Gaglardi has a background of involvement with hockey ownership, first with the Kamploos Blazers, followed by the Canucks in 2006, then again in a failed bid to move the Thrashers to Hamilton in 2010. While the idea of a Canadian owning a Texas hockey team might seem a little incongruous, Gaglardi has family ties to the lonestar state and appears committed to the local fan base.

On Nieuwendyk I am less optimistic. It is still early in his career as GM, but some of his moves thus far have been curious. His low-risk short-term decisions have met with modest success in Nystrom and Souray. However, the signing of Jagr and Whitney as well as the refusal, albeit one likely determined by previous ownership, to trade Richards does not speak well for his ability to recognize the challenges that lay ahead nor how best to approach them. Neither does having Bob Gainey as a consultant encourage me, despite his previous success with the franchise or his time with the Canadiens.

As you can see, this team really has me torn over where they might go. What I can say is that the Dallas Stars may occupy the middle-bottom tier of the Western Conference for a while longer, meaning that the Flames will be trying to stay ahead of them while the Oilers will likely be leapfrogging them in the near future.

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  • Dallas had the benefit of gaining their last franchise player (Modano) from the losing ways of Minnesota. They never had to suffer any major losing like the Oilers have just to get good players.

    They have had exactly 1 season under 80 points since moving to Dallas* and that was in the mid 90’s. This is a market completely untested until now.

    *Not counting the strike shortened year

    • RexLibris

      Yep. But I think you need to separate the city from the franchise. The franchise managment was more or less moved from one city to another, so one could say that the franchise “earned” Modano, but the fan base hadn’t.

      I know that watching all of those playoff series and the reaction from the Dallas fan base stuck in my craw. They didn’t seem to recognize what they had been given, but just took it for granted. That may have been sour grapes as well.

      I agree that these next few seasons will test the Dallas market, but for the sake of the fans and city at least they have had a successful introduction to the NHL to fall back on. Compare that to selling a dry patch to fans in Columbus or Florida.

      • I was most definitely thinking of the fans when I wrote what I did.

        Just as you said, the Franchise did the losing but the fans avoided that. Just like the Oilers’ farm team went through some bad times, but Oklahoma never suffered like a Springfield AHL fan did.

        • RexLibris

          I suppose that is true. I hadn’t considered the OKC fans – both of them.

          I remember watching one of the last playoff series with Dallas and the Oilers where the Oilers won a game to extend the series on the road and the fans pelted the team with garbage as they skated off the ice. It always irked me that I never heard about any fines or warnings coming from the league for that.

          By comparison, the Oilers, if I recall correctly, lost the next game and were eliminated on home ice and the fans gave them a standing ovation for the effort.

          Those were interesting days, when winning meant you lived long enough to fight another day.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    Another beauty Rex. Truly enjoying your articles, especially lately. Don’t know where you came from, but I’m glad you’re contributing.

    • RexLibris

      Thanks.

      I’m the spawn of a truly horrible biological experiment that Jonathan and Kent cooked up in Robin’s garage when he was away on vacation.

      I’m basically a hideous monstrosity that challenges the laws of God and nature and as a result they like to keep me locked up in the basement of an undisclosed location.

      I earn my keep by writing these articles and searching the intertubes for Lowetide’s pretty-lady pictures.

      πŸ˜‰

  • marty

    Hi, i’ll give you a great young winger (neal), a pretty solid dman (niskanen) for that dman who’s name rhymes with zalapski. he’s good isn’t he? oh wait i gotta pass the meth pipe before i sign off on that deal. what were ya thinking joe?

  • John Chambers

    Hey Rex – interesting that you’re so bearish on the Stars as I see them more as a team with two legitimate first liners – Benn and Eriksson – a good 2nd line, decent top – 4, and an above average tender. Theyve been in the thick of a playoff hunt, right up there with good teams like Chicago, San Jose, and LA over the past to seasons.

    They have a better prospect pool than most non-lottery teams. Adding Jagr, Whitney, and Roy make them stronger and more complete than with Ribeiro and Ott.

    With Detroit, Nashville, and Phoenix due to get worse, I can’t see how Dallas isn’t a decent bet to make the playoffs … At least 50-50, IMO.

    I guess I’m opposed to the notion of re-build being a legitimate option for so many teams. Calgary and Columbus should undoubtedly architect a purposeful re-build; their organizations are so desperately lacking in high-end talent that they would kill for Benn and Eriksson. Edmonton, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay should be concluding their re-builds and should be focusing on the playoffs as their goal. For everyone else, a trip to the lottery should be seen as a nightmare scenario … that method of acquiring top talent should be considered as a measure of last resort.

    • RexLibris

      See, that’s the problem. I’m either an insomniac bear, or a narcoleptic bull. I can’t decide which way to go with these guys.

      Strategically, they are doing so many things right, except Nieuwendyk. Not certain about him, maybe wearing that Flaming C causes later-life brain damage. πŸ˜‰

      I think they could hold steady, or even rise, certainly if teams like Calgary, Anaheim, Columbus, or even Nashville begin to falter. However, all of those teams are likely to be replaced by Edmonton, Minnesota and Colorado. So are they likely to have gained anything in the end, or will they just be running in place?

      A rebuild is a vague term that is thrown around pretty loosely (I know I do). I’ve come to define it as the intentional replacement of a core group of players, usually in the direction of youth. That acquisition can be by trade (very difficult and uncommon), draft (painful and risky, but often lucrative), or free-agency (how’d that work for you, Toronto?). The Stars, as I mentioned, can’t really afford to do B or C, and they don’t really have the assets (anymore) to manage A.

      So where does that leave them? Trying to outsmart the competition – which brings us back to their management and scouting group. The horses are there, but are they hitched to the right wagons? (And he ends it with a western metaphor!)

    • RexLibris

      Not certain. He may have felt that he was dealing from a position of surplus to address need.

      To be honest I don’t know. But it certainly made Shero look like a genius.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    IMO your perspective to a team,s success always comes around to a comparison to the Oilers,and the path they have taken.Not sure why you would want to do that,as the Oilers are a mess.It does,nt take a genius to make a first overall pick every year.The future for the Oiler,s may or may not be bright.As it,s been pointed out,Pittsburgh/Chicago have built champions through the draft,while other teams in the same position have not.Do teams that win lottery picks get the same respect as a team that trys to put a winning team on the ice every season, and holds on to it,s star in hopes of success with the here and now? Comparing these teams with the management style of Detroit would be more realistic.

    • RexLibris

      I understand your points but I wasn’t trying to compare these teams specifically to the Oilers.

      In Dallas’ case I’m just trying to point out that they don’t have a very strong core group, or at least one that doesn’t have a pretty striking imbalance in age, and that they don’t seem to have any young prospects coming along to help.

      If those points seemt to relate back to the Oilers, they also relate back to just about any well run team in the league (I’m not trying to imply that the Oilers necessarily fall into that category) in that having a clearly set group that is your core, as well as a collection of useful veterans/rookies to complement that core, along with a well-equipped scouting team and a decent collection of prospects are all signs of organizational health.

      Franchises go through life-spans where they will do something well for a time and reap the rewards, usually. Then it drops off and they often crash as a result.

      The point of examining these franchises is to determine what is going on in them. Many of us don’t read anything about the Stars or the Ducks on a regular basis and have to formulate an opinion on them and their future based on a few games here and there and some media attention when things go wrong or change noticeably.

      I’m only looking at these teams on an individual basis, not as a compare and contrast to Detroit or the Oilers or anyone else. While I do refer to rankings, those are meant as one factor amongst many.

      I’ll try to keep an eye out for Oilers’ strategy bias though, thanks.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Rex, you may be a little hard on Nieuy & blaming his time as a Flame. Tough situation for a GM when the team had 2 feet on a financial banana peel when Brad Richards became UFA & he was pretty contstrained to buying his needs ala Feasty was able to purchase a Wideman & Hudler. If theres nothing in the wallet to spend you have to roll the dice & meet needs on the trade market. Not a formula to look like a rock star GM.

    • RexLibris

      My shot at Nieuwendyk over the Flames is meant in good fun.

      I’m not sold on him yet, and he has had a longer run than Yzerman. The player-to-GM move is always contentious because people feel that for some reasons skills ought to overlap.

      I haven’t been really impressed by him yet, but I’m also aware that some of those moves are directed by ownership and once that changes, and the operational mandate to accompany it, his moves may change as well. It remains to be seen how and to what extent, but it isn’t going to be an easy ride for them these next few years.

      I will say this though, I think I’d almost rather be GM of the Stars than the next GM of the Devils.

      • RexLibris

        I knew you were having fun πŸ™‚ but when you do mention it I’m sure the thought crossed your mind. Nieuy is a very intelligent guy & good head for the game. There is a transition from player to executive. Tell you what, I would take Nieuy over Feaster & ST any day. Would like to see him with a financially solid team & see how he does.

        • RexLibris

          My hesitance with Nieuwendyk, all intelligence and education aside, is with the often knee-jerk reaction amongst fans and the media to declare this person or that to be a “good hockey executive” without allowing for a period of time to expire by which that executive can be evaluated.

          Guys like Tambellini, or even Feaster for that matter, do have a record that provides a certain degree of history from which we can glean a sense of ability.

          I’m not against having young GMs like Yzerman or Nieuwendyk getting into the league, but it seems that we are too quick to give them credit for things they have yet to do.

          I would definitely take Nieuwendyk over Feaster….

          πŸ˜‰