The past four seasons have not been kind to the once-powerful Dallas Stars.
Ownership troubles resulted in reduced payrolls, forcing Joe Nieuwendyk (who took over the GM duties in June 2009) to rebuild the Stars with youth and affordable veterans.
Despite missing the playoffs last season for the fourth consecutive year, there are signs the Stars are on the verge of an upswing in their fortunes.
Last November, the team was bought by Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi, who indicated a willingness to spend more towards improving the roster.
Nieuwendyk, meanwhile, continued his rebuild. During the summer he dealt Mike Ribeiro to Washington for Cody Eakin and a second round pick and shipped versatile forward, and uberpest, Steve Ott to Buffalo for Derek Roy.
He also dipped into the unrestricted free agent market, inking Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney.
The acquisitions of Roy, Jagr and Whitney raised some eyebrows. Roy’s stats have been in decline for several seasons (though he was injured for most of 2010-11) and while Jagr showed last year he can still be an effective NHL scorer, his best seasons are well behind them. Whitney had his second-best offensive season in 2011-12, but this appears to be more of an anomaly than an upward trend at this stage.
Nieuwendyk hopes his team’s veteran experience and skill provides a much-needed boost to an offense that was 22nd overall in goals-per-game and a power play that was the worst in the league.
These moves are also short-term. Roy’s contract expires after this season, as does Jagr’s deal. Whitney signed a two-year pact. If these acquisitions don’t pan out, it won’t be costly over the long-term to Dallas’ payroll.
Nieuwendyk also re-signed starting goalie Kari Lehtonen to a new five-year, $29.5 million contract extension, effective for the 2013-14 campaign.
Some critics questioned investing that much in a goalie who has a history of injuries, but Lehtonen has played very well for the Stars the past two seasons and convinced Nieuwendyk he was worth locking up.
But the Stars still have some problem areas. They possess decent skill on the blueline with Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, but overall the D-corps lacks toughness. Long-time workhorse Stephane Robidas is aging (35) and would benefit from reduced playing time, but it remains to be seen if anyone can step up and reliably take over some of his minutes.
A lack of size and grit is an issue upfront, which will make life miserable for scorers such as Jagr, Whitney, Roy, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn.
Benn’s contract status remains a significant piece of unfinished business. The two sides kept their negotiations out of the media throughout the summer, but were unable to reach an agreement on a new deal before the lockout commenced.
Benn, 23, has quickly become a fan favorite and is considered the club’s franchise player. Coming off an entry level contract, he’s due for a significant raise. The Stars have the cap space to re-sign him, but it’ll be a question of how much they’re willing to spend under the terms of the next CBA.
Once the Stars return to action, Benn isn’t expected to remain unsigned for long.
This season is crucial for the Stars. Their four-year playoff has taken a toll on attendance, which steadily shrank from an average of 18,038 in 2007-08 (the last season they made the playoffs) to 14,227 last season.
To halt the attendance decline, a playoff berth is a must.
Expect Nieuwendyk to continue searching for more size and grit for his defense and forward lines. If the Stars are playoff contenders by the trade deadline, those kinds of players will be more available and affordable from non-playoff clubs.
On the other hand, if the Stars are well out of contention by then, Nieuwendyk could begin purging the roster of his veterans who are eligible for UFA status.
Brenden Morrow, the Stars captain, was the subject of off-season trade speculation, which will surely increase near the trade deadline if Dallas is out of contention.
Nieuwendyk could also try to move Whitney and Robidas, who’ll both have one year remaining on their contracts.
Ultimately, the Stars performance this season will determine what moves Nieuwendyk makes.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday 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, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.