It looks like 2012 will be a year of promise for the Dallas Stars.
Their three years of ownership woes were finally resolved in November, when the club was sold to Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi, who pledged his support of GM Joe Nieuwendyk and praised Nieuwendyk’s efforts in building the Stars into a competitive team.
The Stars got off to a good start this season, thanks in part to the goaltending of Kari Lehtonen, and enter the new year only one point out of first in the Pacific Division.
Left winger Jamie Benn is coming into his own as a playmaker, while left winger Loui Eriksson is roughly on pace to match last season’s 73-point performance. Defenseman Sheldon Souray, considered washed up when the Stars signed him last summer as a free agent, had a hot start, tallying 13 points in his first 14 games.
Since early November, however, the Stars haven’t shone quite so bright.
Despite their placement in the Pacific Division, they began this week barely clinging to a playoff berth, perched eighth overall in the very tight Western Conference on Monday and moving back to 10th by Tuesday.
After bolting from the gate with an 11-3 record, they’ve stumbled since early November. They entered January having only won 10 of their past 23 games.
Injuries have taken a toll during that period. Lehtonen missed several weeks to a groin injury, left winger Brenden Morrow was out six games with an upper body injury, and defenseman Alex Goligoski was sidelined for 11 games with a broken thumb.
Their most reliable defenseman, Stephane Robidas, is currently on injured reserve. Souray – who has only three points since mid-November – recently joined Robidas on IR with an ankle injury.
The Stars’ power play and penalty kill are ranked 21st overall, while their shots-against per game average of 32.1 is highest in the league.
These problems prompted Mac Engel of the Star-Telegram to call on Nieuwendyk, for the sake of the fans and the players’ morale, to add a player who can help the Stars secure a better playoff foothold.
Engel noted there’s still plenty of time before the NHL trade deadline to make such a deal without it being “a panic-button move,” but believes the Stars badly need a top-six winger to bolster their power play.
He also wondered if this is be the time to trade center Mike Ribeiro, whom he claimed the Stars have been trying to move for years, though it appears no one wants him.
Engel pointed out the Stars have the cap space (currently their payroll is just more than $50.2 million) and the assets (“primarily in net with Richard Bachman and a few prospects in the minors”) to get a deal done, though he acknowledged there currently aren’t many teams in “sell mode” with the kind of players the Stars could use.
The Stars’ performance throughout January will determine what moves Nieuwendyk makes. If they can maintain a hold on a playoff berth over that period, it’ll allow him more time to assess his roster needs and open up the trade market to more targets as other clubs begin to fall by the wayside.
Talent availability in the trade market will be an issue. Currently there’s not much to be had for teams seeking depth, as there are only four teams (Columbus, Carolina, Anaheim, and the New York Islanders) that could be considered viable trade targets and what they have to offer might not be worthwhile for the Stars.
Rumor mongers will likely attempt to link the Stars to big names such as Rick Nash and Jeff Carter of the Blue Jackets, Eric Staal of the Hurricanes, or Bobby Ryan of the Ducks.
It’s unlikely those players are available, but even if they were, the asking price would be too expensive for Nieuwendyk’s liking.
Roster health will also be a determining factor. A healthier lineup in the coming weeks would significantly bolster their playoff hopes, thus lessening the urgency to make a trade. If, however, injuries continue to hamper their performance and potentially jeopardize those hopes, Nieuwendyk will have little choice but to shop around for help.
It’s unlikely Ribeiro, currently their third-highest scorer, will be dealt, if for no other reason than his $5-million cap hit and limited no-trade clause make him a tough sell.
Expect Nieuwendyk to be active leading up to the Feb. 27 trade deadline, but for now he will remain patient and wait for the right move.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.