Ah. Feels good to be doing this again.
As of Friday afternoon on the 23rd of February, the Dallas Stars sit in third place in the Central Division, locked in a season-long battle for a few highly competitive playoff spots. Since the beginning of December the Stars have been one of the more consistently impressive teams in the NHL, and have become a stingy, shutdown force while managing to climb into the top-third of the league in goal-scoring. The goaltending has been solid, spectacular at times, and a muddled defense with plenty of questions has molded into one impressive group led by a Norris Trophy favorite.
In short, they’ve become a Ken Hitchcock team very quickly.
After last season’s incredible disappointment and the quick re-tooling over the summer (the additions of Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal have largely been inconsequential, but that’s another matter for another day) expectations for the 2017-18 season were uneven. Should the Stars be considered a Cup favorite? Would just making the playoffs be enough?
Obviously, anything short of the postseason is a disappointment. But with a first-round series looming against Winnipeg, St. Louis or even Vegas, the Stars — and Jim Nill specifically — need to weigh whether just getting into the show this year will be good enough; whether the Stars are prepared for what will surely be a very tough matchup as soon as the postseason begins.
As impressive as the Stars have been at times this season there are some very obvious holes in the roster. The organization has some young players on the cusp of reaching the NHL – Jason Dickinson, Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov – who all have potential to fill out what is an overall offensively-lacking group behind the top line. The Stars have some really gritty forwards that are hard on the forecheck and provide energy, but struggle to find the net.
Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore and Remi Elie have all spent significant time in the top six this season and none have managed to provide the offense needed, leading to Hitchcock having to break up his magical top line from time to time to spark the scoring again.
When looking at the needs for the rest of the season, and ahead to next year, it’s clear an addition is still needed — specifically a scoring winger. The Stars have grit, they are able to overwhelm the opposition when they’re playing their game with a physicality, speed and aggression that is just plain fun to watch when working the right way. That’s the element the Stars were missing against the Blues two years ago to offset their high-flying scoring.
But now, in an interesting twist, the Stars need more offense.
Enter — The 2018 NHL Trade Deadline.
What the Stars needed has been clear nearly all season. As the deadline has neared, at first the thought was Rick Nash was a good choice due to his connection with Hitchcock and the fact that he’s Rick Freakin’ Nash. Then Mats Zuccarello was intriguing, then Michael Grabner – apparently the entire New York Rangers forward group could be attractive to Dallas.
Stars fans have been eager to see what Dallas will do; would Jim Nill go all-in this season in a crowded Western Conference race and shoot for the moon? That would certainly be exciting.
However, logic needs to be applied here.
Jim Nill famously keeps his plans quiet. There are no leaks from the Stars organization under this GM – something that was definitely not always true. The Stars GM has caught literally everyone by surprise at times with some very big trades. However, you get the sense that when Nill (and also owner Tom Gaglardi) insists that the Stars are not interested in a rental player, and certainly not one that would cost a first-round draft pick, that he’s being dead serious.
They are right in that rental players rarely work out – after all, it’s a contending team hoping this one last piece over a few months can help put them over the top for a Cup. But only one team wins the Cup each year, so the numbers say you’re likely going to be disappointed by gambling away your first-rounder for a second-round exit.
What about a ‘hockey trade,’ though? A trade that benefits the Stars not just this season, but for the next season as well? This is important because there is a competitive window that is open right now that might be closing very soon.
Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin are both UFAs after next season – there is a 0% chance both return in 2019. The Stars best players are right in their prime; Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Ben Bishop – the core of the team are all in that perfect spot of experience and age.
So, the Stars have a very good, almost-great team with a two-year window and a need for scoring help on the wing.
Enter Max Pacioretty.
The left winger has one more year after this season left on a six-year, $27 million contract that has a cap hit of $4.5 million a season. He’s scored more than 30 goals and 60 points in each of the last four seasons, he’s only 29 years old, he’s 6-2, 205 pounds and can play physical if needed and he is in desperate need of a fresh start.
The Montreal Canadiens season is done, and there has been talk of a player like Pacioretty being on the trade block as the Habs look forward. The captain of the Canadiens has certainly struggled with his scoring this season, with just nine even-strength goals in 60 games and a career-low minus-15 on the scoresheet, and for better or worse is being looked at as an example of the team’s struggles and the need for change.
Diving deeper, however, the full story begins to emerge.
Pacioretty has always been a very strong possession forward at even strength and a danger on the power play. This season, he’s riding an absurdly low 95.1 PDO at even strength and a career-low shooting percentage, however he’s having the same impact on his team that he always has.
In short, he makes whoever he plays with better. Just take a look at the 5v5 shot charts below.
With two exceptions, any player on the Canadiens that has stepped onto the ice with Pacioretty has seen their possession numbers improve – in many times drastically so.
Pacioretty does get very favorable offensive zone starts, but he’s mostly been playing against top-line competition this season and doing quite well. Again, he’s just not been scoring at his normal clip at even strength, but everything else about his game has remained strong.
Most importantly, he’s a beast on the power play, and has nine goals so far this year with the man advantage, which would coincidentally be tied for the lead on the Stars.
There’s no doubt he’s a strong player having a very difficult season and going through a tough time as the Habs struggle, and all the tea leaves are there saying that a fresh start on a team like Dallas – strong possession team, needs power play help, likes to play physical – is exactly what he needs.
Does he fit on the Stars? There’s no doubt. The Stars need help on either wing, and with Mattias Janmark able to move to the right side, Dallas would easily be able to slide him into the top six next to a revived Jason Spezza, who has been looking much like his old self of late.
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov
Max Pacioretty – Jason Spezza – Mattias Janmark
Makes my hockey pants tingle.
However, there is the price to be considered.
Michael Grabner was acquired for a second round pick and a prospect, however he doesn’t have nearly the pedigree of Pacioretty. Derrick Brassard was just traded for a first-rounder and a top goalie prospect.
A player like Pacioretty is like, at the cheapest, going to cost a 2nd and another pick, a roster player (Brett Ritchie) and a top prospect like Jason Dickinson. I doubt the Stars are willing to part with a first round pick, even if it’s not a rental player in return, however the Stars cannot continue to afford to play the waiting game and “we’re building a lasting contender through the draft.”
The NHL is too competitive and every season where you’re rolling along you need to take advantage. There’s a good chance other teams in the Central will be aggressive to improve and the Stars need to consider the ramifications of staying out of the arms race – can they afford to watch the division continue to aggressively improve while hoping players like Shore, Ritchie or Elie magically find a way to start contributing.
To sum up – losing prospects to trade, losing draft picks to trade, is tough. It’s a gamble that could have lasting effects years down the line.
But wouldn’t the Stars be much better replacing the player on the right, with the player on the left?
Hey, click these:
2/22/18 – David Freese, Brett Hull, and Arby’s
2/21/18 – Carmax, Priorities, and Ben Bishop
2/20/18 – Heiskanen Scored a Goal
2/18/18 – Trader’s Village and Trade Deadlines
2/18/18 – Sundays With Miro, Game 3
2/17/18 – Another Night With Miro Heiskanen