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Switching Gears

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - If the National Hockey League draft is the foundation on which the Dallas Stars - and every other team for that matter - will be built then it's time for GM Jim Nill to get to work on the back porch and maybe the woodshed.

After selecting a potential franchise defenseman in Miro Heiskanen with the third overall pick Friday night and following it up with six other picks through the end of Saturday's seventh round, Nill and his pro scouting staff will move almost immediately into free agency mode.

The interview process that allows teams to talk to potential unrestricted free agents ahead of July 1 begins Sunday. Among those that Nill will be talking to will be some familiar names Ales Hemsky and Patrick Sharp.

Had both not suffered injuries last year, it's possible they would have been resigned by the team already, Nill said at the close of the draft Saturday.

But both players struggled with injuries throughout the season including hip surgery for both. Sharp, a key off-season acquisition two summers ago having won three Stanley Cups, is about three months into a four to five-month recovery process.

At age 35, Sharp's leadership qualities are impeccable although his durability will be a key factor for Nill to assess.

Another forward whose health will factor into future team plans is Mattias Janmark who suffered a rare bone/cartilage injury in his knee that cost him all last season.

Janmark, 24, could have perhaps played at the end of last season, but Nill said team doctors suggested taking a cautious approach. Now he's been cleared to play but his recovery process has been so long it's difficult to say where he's at competitively.

"He's got to get in game action now," Nill said. "He's been practicing all this time. Now you've got to get in a game and get hit."

The Stars earlier addressed goaltending issues by acquiring and then signing Ben Bishop to a long-term deal which means Nill's off-season shopping list is short.

Pending updates on Hemsky, Sharp and Janmark, Nill might be looking at a couple of spots on the wing and possibly a left-handed shot defenseman. Now the question becomes whether those pieces are best added via hockey trades or free agency. Each option provides pros and cons with free agency requiring no assets be given up, but generally cost more in dollar and term. Making a hockey trade provides better salary cap certainty, but has a cost in assets like draft picks or prospects.

"We have this interview period coming up in the next four or five days here, get a better feel for the market then," Nill said. "We've seen a lot of these trades happen over the last couple of days are cap deals where the money, it doesn't add up. So, it's going to be interesting to see how that balances out over the next couple of weeks here."

Nill alluded to several deals consummated over draft weekend and while there weren't as many as first believed would take place in the wake of the expansion draft in Las Vegas there were enough that the landscape has changed significantly especially in the Western Conference.

Here's a look at some of those.

There were plenty of rumors heading into the draft about how busy the new Las Vegas team was going to be in shedding veteran players they selected in the expansion draft earlier in the week. But none of those deals came to fruition and that means a rapidly changing dynamic for GM George McPhee, who will quickly go from being the most powerful man in the game pre-expansion draft to a man who must move assets to comply with NHL roster requirements and may end having to offer those assets at a reduced price.

To that end it will be interesting to see what Vegas chooses to do with veteran defenseman Marc Methot whose stock rose dramatically thanks to a strong run with Ottawa to the Eastern Conference final. His name has come up repeatedly about Dallas. Now, McPhee doesn't have to move Methot and in fact it wouldn't be a shock if he stayed and ended up as the team's first captain. But something's got to give in Vegas and teams that might have felt held hostage by the expansion draft process will enjoy being on the other side of the equation.

Speaking of left-handed defensemen, the Ottawa Senators are still looking to move veteran Dion Phaneuf, another left-hander, but his $7 million cap hit for the next four seasons means that people aren't lining up to nab the one-time Toronto captain. In terms of the free agent market, never the best place to get good value for your money, there are a couple of names that will come up in the coming days including longtime Dallas defenseman Trevor Daley, fresh off back-to-back Cups with Pittsburgh. While he's a left-handed shot, he plays the right side so not an obvious fit for the Stars. A couple of Washington defenders expected to hit the market are Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk who played for Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. Alzner's injury issues and the fact Shattenkirk is a right-hand shot make them less of an obvious fit. Also, the fact there are so few top end defenders available means dollar and term may be more than Nill will want to take on.

Still too early to determine where or how the balance of power has shifted in the Western Conference given significant movement in the past week although with a thin free agent class recent moves may take on even added import. So, who got better?

The biggest shakeup in the Central Division invovled the draft host Chicago Blackhawks, as GM Stan Bowman reinforced his reputation as one of the boldest GMs in the game moving three-time Stanley Cup winner Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona for younger and cheaper assets in Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin. He also repatriated forward Brandon Saad, whom he dealt to Columbus two drafts ago, parting with last year's rookie of the year Artemi Panarin. More cost certainty for Bowman with Saad who has four years left on his deal at $6 million per year against the cap. And after being swept in the first round of the playoffs Saad is expected to return to a line with captain Jonathan Toews in the hopes of reigniting Toews's offensive game.


The other big move in the Central Division was St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong shedding the unwanted Jori Lehtera contract and adding 25-year-old scorer Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia. Schenn has 51 goals over the past two seasons and will fill an offensive void for a Blues team that has done a nice job of retooling on the fly. It cost Armstrong a first-round pick in this draft and a conditional first-round pick in 2018 or 2019, but he followed that up by adding a first-round pick and a prospect in a deal that saw tough guy Ryan Reaves go to defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh.

Although the Calgary Flames were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Anaheim, they continue to serve notice they think their time is now. The Flames added veteran defenseman Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders although the price they paid was steep; a first-round pick and two second-round picks. The Flames also received a fourth-round pick in the deal. Good for Isles GM Garth Snow for adding those assets while freeing up cap space after adding Jordan Eberle earlier in the week. The Flames, though, now boast what should be a top two or three defensive line-up in the Western Conference with Hamonic joining Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. Puts even more of a fine point on questions surrounding the acquisition of veteran netminder Mike Smith. If he's Smith of circa 2012 the Flames are the real deal. "At the end of the day you pay a price," Calgary GM Brad Treliving said. "You've got to give to get and you hate paying the price."

 "We like it on paper," he said of his defensive group. "But at the end of the day…paper and reality are always two different things but we like how it looks."

Speaking of the Battle of Alberta, that rivalry seems to be in full renaissance with the Flames' moves and a few hours later the confirmation that defenseman Kris Russell, briefly a Dallas Star, had signed a four-year contract to remain in Edmonton.

Not sure about better but Arizona sure looks different. After a tumultuous week that saw veteran head coach (and former Stars bench boss) Dave Tippett depart the team and captain Shane Doan told he was no longer needed as a player, the Coyotes added a starting goalie, veteran center and three-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman. Antti Raanta has the goods to be an everyday starter in goal and Niklas Hjalmarsson is a multiple Stanley Cup winner who has hard miles on his body but is still an effective force. Derek Stepan is being touted as a number one center, but while he was at times that in New York with four years left on a contract with a $6.5 million cap hit, this is the biggest gamble of the group for a Coyotes team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2012 and which is still a longshot to be in the tournament next spring. And oh yeah, they still don't have a plan for a new arena and there isn't one anywhere on the horizon.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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