Thursday, July 4, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Jamie in the Middle
The day before free agency is not the time to get carried away like a bunch of little girls.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we got to know brand new Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff a little more ... intimately. This week, rather than gush 4,000 words about how "lucky" the Stars were to have a bunch of clueless teams picking ahead of them in the draft, we're going to insert the proverbial Camera of Truth into the Stars' Colon of Desperation, and really get down deep into the team's need for centers.
It's no secret that Dallas is looking to add two top-six centers this summer. New GM Jim Nill has publicly stated he wants current #1 center Jamie Benn to move back to the wing, and has been utterly silent about Cody Eakin, who earned his way up the lineup to the #2 center spot by the end of the season.
It's also no secret that Dallas' options are extremely limited on the free agent market. The only "real" big name, Vinny Lecavalier, spurned Dallas for a quiet, stable spot on the Flyers' second line. Although Dallas may have inadvertently caught a bullet in its teeth and thrown it right back on that one: more on that in a moment.
As of right now, the Stars have three options at center. And they are:
Option #1: Improve Through Free Agency - As for this option, let's just say that, historically, we're not fans of this method. Truly valuable players almost never make it to the free agent stage, having been locked up by their current teams to long-term deals. The guys that do get to "test the market" are generally second-tier players at best, or high-profile guys on the downside of their careers. There are some extremely rare exceptions --Kovalchuk was still in his late 20s and had put up a string of 40-goal seasons when he hit free agency-- but even those outliers got to where they were only by refusing massive contracts from their current teams, causing huge off-ice distractions and otherwise putting their own financial needs ahead of both their current and former teams.
This year is no different. The top free agent centers are collectively one of the most uninspiring groups of athletes since the 1997-2004 New York Rangers. Tyler Bozak is a solid if unspectacular third line center, Stephan Weiss and Derek Roy are oft-injured and underwhelming even when healthy, Ribeiro is old and busted, and everyone else is over 35. Replacing Benn --who even with an injured wrist put up 33 points in 41 games-- and Eakin --who despite playing half the season on the third and fourth lines still put up 24 points in 48 games-- with any one of these guys is at best a lateral move, not an improvement.
Add in the fact that these UFAs will be getting bid up by desperate teams vying against each other, and they become even less desirable to a team with serious plans to contend in the near future.
Final Verdict: Pass.
Option #2: Improve Through Trade - This is where it gets interesting. While technically a trade costs more than free agency, particularly in terms of players, prospects and/or picks going the other way, the potential upside of the player coming back is significantly higher. Particularly when you're dealing with a team that has a glut of serviceable centers and only two top-six spots available, such as Boston, or a team that mismanages its roster so catastrophically that they routinely force themselves to trade away their brightest young stars, such as Philadelphia.
Unlike in previous years, where Dallas had little to offer in trade, this year they've got plenty of potential assets to snag a quality center or two. They've got loads of solid defensive prospects in the AHL, some excellent wingers in Chiasson, Ritchie and Stransky that they should probably hold on to at all costs, and a bluechip goalie prospect in Jack Campbell that won't see much playing time behind Lehtonen for a long time anyways and whose reputation in international play may exceed his actual abilities.
If all those guys reach their full potential with the Stars, awesome! But that won't be for a while, and the center thing is glaring the team in the face right now. Also glaring in someone's face: the Lecavalier signing by Philly just put them right over the cap again, with massive deficiencies at defense and still in need of at least one NHL-caliber goaltender. They've got four young forwards going RFA next summer, and while they will definitely keep one --Claude Giroux-- the other three (Schenn, Read, and Couturier) have essentially been given their walking papers in the Vinny signing.
Unlike the Stars, who could conceivably just roll with Benn and Eakin or Eakin/Faksa next season, the Flyers have truly destroyed any and all trade leverage they once might have had. Even worse, they're not in a position to take on any more salary in said cap-required trade, meaning they would have to trade one or two of those players for, essentially, picks and/or prospects rather than roster players. If Nill can't take advantage of that....
Dallas' second-best, but far more expensive, option is Tyler Seguin of the Bruins. Through little fault of his own, Seguin has become the third wheel in Boston's ridiculously deep center corps, behind Krejci and Bergeron on the depth chart. Meaning Boston will soon have a young, #2-overall pick making $6 million a season to center the third line: a luxury in the days before the salary cap, but a total waste of resources now. Seguin will cost quite a bit in trade, but at 21 and oozing offensive potential, the possible upside is too much to ignore. Dallas can easily take on his $6 million salary and cap hit, and Seguin would instantly go from limited minutes on a checking line to a first-line spot flanked by some combination of Benn, Loui Eriksson, Ray Whitney and/or Valeri Nichushkin. It's a win-win for everyone involved... depending on the cost to Dallas.
Final Verdict: Intriguing.
Option #3: Do Nothing - While moving Benn back to wing is ideal, it doesn't need to happen right away. No one will confuse next season's Stars team for a Cup contender, even if a lot of things go impossibly right, and moving Benn to wing is not the "final piece." There are some BIG name centers going UFA next summer that make this year's crop look like dog s**t scraped off the bottom of your BK Knights. And the Dallas defense will be chock-full of AHLers this season trying to make a name for themselves --with all the guaranteed defensive lapses and zone breakdowns that entails. So why the rush? Why not ride Benn/Eakin next season, watch them continue to develop as centers while the team goes through the normal ups-and-downs of building through youth and development? Benn scored at the same pace last season as Mike Richards, Bergeon or Krejci, and seemed to dominate when Whitney and Chiasson were his wingers. Eakin was as solid and dependable a two-way second line center as you can get after Derek Roy was traded, and replacing the ineffective Matt Fraser or the snakebitten Reilly Smith on his wing with Nichushkin is certainly a step up in the ability department. Whitney/Benn/Chiasson/Nichushkin/Eakin/Eriksson is not a bad top-six, and certainly not one to make a GM pull the trigger on a series of panic-driven trades or unnecessarily costly free agent signings.
Of course, being "fine" and being "ideal" are two separate things entirely. Benn is much better suited for the wing, while Eakin is much better suited to center the third line. But if your other option is Tyler Bozak or sending Eriksson packing to Boston, it may be a better option just to sit this round out and wait for the pots in other cities to boil over --or to offer Joe Thornton or Bergeron or Pavelski a contract they can't refuse one year from tomorrow.
Final Verdict: Likely.