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Insider debate: Is signing Zuccarello top offseason priority for Stars?

DallasStars.com's Mike Heika, Brien Rea and Owen Newkirk tackle 5 burning questions entering the summer

by Mike Heika, Brien Rea and Owen Newkirk / DallasStars.com

Hockey season may be over in Dallas, but the discussion is just getting started. Beginning this month, we're debuting a new insider roundtable as DallasStars.com's Mike Heika, Brien Rea and Owen Newkirk tackle five burning questions about the Stars in "Take 5."

In our first edition, the guys give their thoughts on Mats Zuccarello's future in Big D, potential big-name free agents that Dallas could add, Roope Hintz's rise and more.

 

1. On a scale of 1-10, what would you say are the chances Mats Zuccarello signs a long-term deal to remain with the Stars? Do you believe a Zuccarello deal is the team's top priority entering the summer?

Mike Heika, DallasStars.com senior staff writer: I'm going to give it a 6 right now.

Everything I have heard is that the Stars' main priority in the offseason is to get Mats Zuccarello signed to a contract extension, but then the questions come up on how long and if Zuccarello wants to play the rest of his career in Dallas. Zuccarello will turn 32 on Sept. 1, so a five-year extension would take him through age 37. That's pretty late in a player's career, so the guess is the Stars would want a four-year extension.

If Zuccarello feels that he can get a five-year deal, that could make negotiations a little bit tougher. Because Zuccarello has played his entire career in New York, he might want to see what the interest is on the East Coast, and that might mean he would want to test unrestricted free agency on July 1. He's earned the right, and he might just tell the Stars he wants to wait. The Stars could be patient and allow Zuccarello to study the market in hopes he would still find his best fit back in Dallas, but there are other factors here.

If the Stars re-sign Zuccarello, they give up their first-round pick in 2020. If they do not, they yield their third-round pick. As such, the team might want a sign of reciprocation on the cost of investment in Zuccarello, and might want to get a deal done before July 1. It's an intriguing dance.

I believe the Stars believe that losing the first-round pick is fine because there is a chance it is a pick in the late 20s. My guess is they would rather not lose the first-round pick and overpay for Zuccarello in contract, too. That could mean they face a tough decision if Zuccarello wants to hit it out of the park this summer.

 

Brien Rea, host of 'Stars Live' on FOX Sports Southwest: Do I think re-signing Mats Zuccarello is a top priority? Absolutely, yes.

Even though the cost will be the length of the contract and a 2020 first-round pick, I think it's worth it. The Stars are in a window right now to win, Zuccarello is a proven commodity with this team as good as any other top-six forward option that Jim Nill could find on the free agent market. A 2020 first-round pick won't potentially start producing value for at least three years. Key players are locked in for the next few seasons, and Zuccarello's playmaking can round out this team's offense.

I'll sidestep the 1-10 scale and say I'm 50/50 on whether or not Mats Zuccarello will wear a Stars jersey next season. The main reason? I don't know enough about Zuccarello's motivations for what likely will be the last big contract of his career. What is he looking for? Length? Money? Chances to win? No state taxes? Or something else entirely? I'm confident in Jim Nill's ability to navigate the waters of the free agent market to keep him, but I am curious to see how Zuccarello navigates through free agency for the first time in his career.

 

Owen Newkirk, Dallas Stars radio host: I am an optimist by nature, so I'm going to say a solid seven.

To be blunt, Mats Zuccarello makes the Stars a better team. We have heard this fact from Jim Nill, Jim Montgomery -- basically the entire 2018-19 Stars roster and pretty much all of the Stars fans with which I have had the pleasure of interacting. Every aspect of the player received rave reviews; from his speed and tenacity, to his world-class passing ability and his seemingly instant chemistry with the roster both on and off ice. Of course, as a pending UFA, the ball is entirely in Zuccarello's court. Understandably, he kept his cards very close to his chest when addressing the media after the playoff run came to an end. But I think the short stint he had in Texas showed that he's not only a good fit, but that he can come in and have a chance to win with this group right now.

To answer the second part, Nill made it abundantly clear that getting Zuccarello re-signed was a main order of his offseason business this summer. I am completely fine with the inherent cost; the team's 2020 first-round pick plus a contract, which I am guessing would look similar to what Alexander Radulov signed two seasons ago.

Zuccarello had nothing but glowing comments to the press about his brief time in Dallas (aside from his frustration at being injured and missing so many regular season games). That's a good sign for the Stars, but not a guarantee. If for some reason, Zuccarello decides to sign elsewhere, then Nill's priority will be filling the top-six slot vacated by the electrifying Norwegian.

Video: Zuccarello not approaching offseason any differently

 

2. Aside from Zuccarello, are there any potential big-name players the Stars could target once free agency opens on July 1? What do you see as the team's biggest need?

Heika: The Stars have two problems with this crop of unrestricted free agents, in my opinion. Because of contracts already signed by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and because of the future contract needed for Miro Heiskanen, I don't think they can do an eight-year deal, which will be required by most of the UFA big dogs. I kind of think they don't want to go beyond five years on anybody and would prefer four. That takes you out of a lot of negotiations.

If they can't get Zuccarello done, my guess is they will focus on a large group of forwards who are still in their 20s. The list probably includes Jordan Eberle, Gustav Nyquist, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Ryan Dzingel, among others. My pick would be Nyquist because he plays a complete game, Jim Nill knows him well, and he's been very good in San Jose after being traded from Detroit. That last part could create a problem, because he might want to stay with the Sharks, but if he tests the market, he might be a good fit in Dallas.

The second problem comes in the fact Dallas can't offer a no-movement clause to a prospective UFA defenseman. The 2021 expansion draft to stock the new Seattle franchise will operate under the same rules as the Vegas expansion draft. That means you can protect three defensemen. The Stars have their three in John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell. That means they can't offer a no-move to another defenseman, because that player would have to be protected. As such, they will likely be looking for players on shorter term deals.

The guess is they will offer a one-year or two-year deal to one defenseman and hope that the crew they have (including possibly the return of a healthy Stephen Johns) will get them through the first half of next season. After New Year's, the guess -- under this scenario -- is they would start shopping for a D-man who might be available at the trade deadline.

 

Rea: With Esa Lindell locked up long-term, my next priority would be adding some scoring punch for a team that was 29th in goals scored per game in the regular season. I don't think this team is going to make a "big splash" signing like Matt Duchene or Artemi Panarin -- that price is simply too high.

I'll throw four names out there: Two "lofty" ones and two "manageable" ones.

Let's start with lofty: Ryan Dzingel from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Gustav Nyquist with the San Jose Sharks. Both players are currently under 30 years old. Dzingel has tallied 49 goals over the past two seasons, and Nyquist has been a routine 40- to 50-point player with 15- to 20-goal production over the past five years.

The market for those two is what's unpredictable. Dzingel is due a hefty raise from his $1.8 million cap hit the past two years. Nyquist is coming off a four-year deal with a $4.75 million number. What will the market, demand and dollar number be for those two. Plus, add in a lengthy playoff run for Nyquist this year? Teams love to pay for winners.

Now manageable: Brett Connolly from the Washington Capitals and Michael Ferland of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Both players are also under 30 years old but carry less fanfare than some other names on the market. Connolly is coming off a career season of 22 goals and 46 points, and he's tallied at least 15 goals each of the past three years. Ferland has 53 goals over the past three seasons and provides another net-front presence. Connolly ($1.5 million) and Ferland ($1.75 million) both carried manageable salary cap numbers entering this summer. Those numbers will go up, but they should not skyrocket.

There could be some value and production that Jim Nill could find in players like Connolly and Ferland.

 

Newkirk: A lot depends on whether Zuccarello re-signs or not. If he does, then the Stars probably are not in on any of the high priced free-agent forwards (and will be very content with a top six consisting of Benn, Seguin, Radulov, Zuccarello, Hintz and Dickinson).

If Zuccarello does not re-sign, then the team will need to fill that void. The Stars will probably look for offense from a player like Jeff Skinner, Ryan Dzingel, Marcus Johansson or Gustav Nyqvist. I'm sure Jim Nill will toss his hat into the ring of the Artemi Panarin sweepstakes, too, because you never know.

However, I think after the Zuccarello/top-six spot is filled, the team's biggest need is a top-four defenseman to round out the big three (Klingberg, Lindell and Heiskanen). Like all of us, I really hope that Stephen Johns is able to recover from his current maladies and return to action for the 2019-20 season. If he does, then I think he can fill that need. Unfortunately, Johns' status is very much up in the air, so the team may very well have to proceed with the assumption that he is not an option. They could go after a big fish like Erik Karlsson or possibly one of the Winnipeg Jets free-agent defensemen: Jacob Trouba (RFA) or Tyler Myers (UFA). But because of the Seattle Expansion Draft coming in two years, a shorter-term solution may be in the offing.

I really like Anton Strålman from the Tampa Bay Lightning. He will be 33 on Aug. 1, so the thought would be perhaps he's interested in signing a two-year contract. Plus, he is right-handed, which would allow the Stars to have two of the coveted "left-right" pairs in their top four, if you assume Lindell-Klingberg and Heiskanen-Strålman. Another quick thought would be Alexander Edler from the Vancouver Canucks. He is the same age as Strålman, but he is left-handed. That means Heiskanen would have to play on the right, which he did early this past season alongside Marc Methot.

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

 

3. The hockey world got an up-close view of Roope Hintz's potential during his rookie campaign, especially in the playoffs where he posted five goals and three assists. Do you think this is a sign of things to come for the young Finn? How high could his ceiling be this coming season?

Heika: Hintz is an interesting study, because before this season, he really did not have a big offensive showing at any level. He was a solid two-way player, but not what you would call dynamic. Even in his first 44 games in the NHL this season, Hintz tallied 11 points (five goals, six assists), not what you would call "top six" material. But in his final 14 games, Hintz had 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and then he added five goals among eight points in 13 playoff games. When you add that to the 22 points he had in 21 AHL games this season, he looks like the real deal in terms of scoring.

I've been a huge advocate of the Stars giving chances to young forwards the way they used to back when Jere Lehtinen, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brenden Morrow, Loui Eriksson, Jussi Jokinen, Niklas Hagman, James Neal and Jamie Benn proved deserving. I think Hintz is the leader of a group of young forwards who should get those chances now.

He seems like a player who should be able to tally 25 goals among 50 points or even more next season.

 

Rea: I think Roope Hintz is going to be a really good hockey player and has given both Jim Montgomery and Jim Nill some flexibility when it comes to their forward corps. That said, I'm going to temper my expectations a little bit regarding next season.

I'll say his ceiling is a 15 to 20-goal, 35 to 45-point player for the Stars moving forward.

What I find so intriguing about Hintz is his unique skillset relative to other forwards. I don't think he is a 30-goal or 50-assist type of player for this team. You'd think his size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) makes him more of a defensive forward, but the guy is ridiculously FAST. He was effective at faceoffs in the postseason, drives puck possession around the ice and attacks the puck when he doesn't have it. This causes opponents problems and creates opportunities for his team. He's the kind of player where the stat sheet won't always give him credit for the elevation he brings on the ice.

 

Newkirk: Not only do I think Hintz is the real deal, but I also believe that he is the second top-six center that the team was lacking for much of the past two seasons.

Prior to the 2019 All-Star break, depth scoring was a real issue for the Stars. More specifically, they lacked a consistent second line to provide at least a scoring threat to balance out the Benn-Seguin-Radulov line and also make road matchups much more difficult for their hosts. I thought at the time that they would have to go out and acquire two top-six forwards at the trade deadline to rectify the situation. But the emergence of Hintz after the bye week/All-Star break combo, along with Jason Dickinson stepping up, and the acquisition of Zuccarello completely transformed the lineup. Suddenly, they had two dangerous scoring lines, the elite shutdown trio of Cogliano-Faksa-Comeau and then a quite a few options to round out the fourth line.

Although it took Hintz much of the 2018-19 season to really break through on a consistent basis, I see big things for him moving forward. His unique combination of hulking size and blazing speed is ideal for today's NHL game. The fact that he was still the fastest player on the ice in Game 7 against St. Louis -- with a broken foot -- says it all. I think finishing will be his biggest hurdle to overcome in the 2019-20 season, but I have high hopes for a strong sophomore campaign.

Video: STL@DAL, Gm4: Benn dishes to Hintz on rush for goal

 

4. Speaking of blossoming talent, which player surprised you the most this season? Who do you think has the most room for improvement in 2019-20?

Heika: The answer to all of these questions is Miro Heiskanen. The 19-year-old defenseman exceeded all expectations and left the feeling that he will get even better now with an NHL season under his belt. But for purposes of this endeavor, let me say that I was really impressed with Esa Lindell.

The 24-year-old defenseman stepped up in a very difficult season and helped cover up for the losses of Marc Methot and Stephen Johns to injury. Lindell had to carry a large role, and he did it in a way that was matter-of-fact and calm. I think he learned from some of his challenges, including the penalty for diving, and I think he will be a huge part of this team for years to come.

As for who can improve, there are a lot of players in that mix. You can say that Mattias Janmark, Radek Faksa and Valeri Nichushkin each could build on their numbers to help the Stars push up from 29th in scoring during the regular season. But the elephant in the room is Jamie Benn.

In a salary-cap league, a team is hurt when it is using $9.5 million in cap hit for a player who finishes 94th in scoring. Benn's 53 points are down 26 from his previous season. His shots on goal are down 52.

The biggest chance for the Stars to improve offensively is to get Benn back to the point-a-game status (403 points in 404 games) he was at for the previous five seasons.

 

Rea: My biggest surprise this season was Taylor Fedun. Here's a guy who was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch in the American Hockey League, gets traded to Dallas for a seventh-round pick and became a reliable third-pair defenseman with a playoff run by the end of the season. You just root for stories and people who go through that kind of adversity.

Denis Gurianov has the most room for improvement in the 2019-20 campaign. With the production that Roope Hintz had last season, I think we are all greedy for Gurianov to make the full-time jump to the NHL. He is just as big and just as fast as Hintz, and his scoring increased in the AHL this season. Consistency will be the big question mark on Gurianov to earn a full-time roster spot this October.

If he can do that, Jim Montgomery will have more forward depth, and the pressure on Jim Nill to find secondary scoring will begin to dissipate.

 

Newkirk: I have two. As far as prospects go, it was Joel L'Esperance. Think about his incredible ascendance. In the span of about 13 months, he went from being an undrafted forward finishing up his senior year at Michigan Tech, to signing a try-out contract to join the Texas Stars and going on a run all the way to Game 7 of the 2018 Calder Cup Final, to signing an entry-level NHL contract with the Stars, to scoring 30 goals in 54 AHL games in his first full pro season, to making his NHL debut and playing in 18 games with Dallas (scoring twice). It is a truly remarkable journey.

I also think he has a lot of room for improvement, especially in the goal-scoring department at the NHL level. Watching him play this past season, you can see he has all the instincts of a sniper. If he can start finding the back of the net with regularity with Dallas like he did down in Cedar Park, then he will not only earn a spot on the NHL roster, but he will also be a strong net-front/high-slot piece for the second power-play unit.

My other big surprise was Roman Polak. When he was signed during free agency last summer, I was not overly enthusiastic by the move -- and boy, was I wrong. Originally signed to be a depth defenseman and battle for the sixth or the seventh spot, he stepped up and was an absolute warrior for the team, especially in the wake of the injuries to Marc Methot and Stephen Johns.

I think, ideally, the Stars are a better team if a player like Polak is in the third defensive pairing. But what he did, particularly on the penalty kill, really won me over.

Video: Fedun on ride from AHL press box to being with Stars

 

5. With Esa Lindell locked up with a six-year contract extension that will keep him with the Stars through the 2024-25 season, who do you believe will be the next home-grown player to receive a long-term deal, and why?

Heika: Miro Heiskanen is again the easy answer here. The guess is he will get an eight-year extension as early as next summer, a year before his rookie contract expires. The other player to watch is Roope Hintz. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and also can earn a lengthy extension with a good season.

The guess is he's not going to get eight years, and you might even see the Stars try to stick to a two-year bridge deal, but if Hintz produces the way we expect, he too could be inking a long-term contract extension next summer.

 

Rea: Miro Heiskanen. Why? …Because he's Miro Freaking Heiskanen.

 

Newkirk: Jim Nill had a great line during his end-of-season press conference at the AAC, referring to Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz as the "Finnish Mafia" and eliciting a well-deserved laugh from the attending media. Since Lindell's new contract is signed, sealed and delivered, the other two arms of the Finnish triumvirate will be the next to get extensions, after next season.

Heiskanen's will be a long-term, big money deal. Hintz's next contract will depend a lot on how he does in 2019-20. If he builds on his late-season/playoff success from this past year, then it may go beyond a short-term bridge deal.

Also, keep an eye out for Radek Faksa's next contract. He is currently 25 and will still be an RFA after this coming season, after completing a three-year bridge deal. To borrow Heika's catchphrase, it will be interesting to see how the Stars approach Faksa's next extension.

Video: DAL@STL, Gm2: Heiskanen pots Hintz's gorgeous pass

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

Brien Rea is a contributing columnist for DallasStars.com and the host of 'Stars Live' on FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter @BrienRea.

Owen Newkirk is a contributor for DallasStars.com and the host of Dallas Stars radio broadcasts on Sportsradio 1310-AM and 96.7-FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @OwenNewkirk.

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