For the Dallas Stars, the 2011-12 NHL season may have ended in the same disappointing fashion the previous three did, with the team missing the playoffs, but make no mistake, this off-season is different.
That’s because for the first time in three years, the Stars have a committed ownership group in place and figure to be active in the summer, seeking to improve the club through free agent signings and/or trades.
With one of the league’s lowest payrolls that hovered just above the salary cap floor all season, the Stars are poised to be in the running for some of the bigger fish in the free agent pool, a goal of new owner Tom Gaglardi since he took over last November.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee the team will throw a ton of money around on July 1, either, but the key is that now they have some flexibility to go after someone if the right deal comes along - and that is something they did not have before, when bank lenders were in control of the checkbook.
“There’s a different dynamic in play this summer, having that stability, having that backing,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “I feel like now we’re a player again, whereas, maybe before, not that we ever used it as an excuse, but the playing field wasn’t really level on a number of fronts. I don’t think teams really felt there was a need to talk to the Dallas Stars because of our situation. I think that will change now, I think we’re a dance partner for some teams again, if you will. We have stability and we have a person that’s really committed to not only turning this business around but turning this team around and he’s willing to provide the resources to do that. We have to be smart, obviously, but we’re going to be looking at all options, as far as free agency, trades, you name it, we’re going to look at it. I’m excited.”
“The good news is, we have flexibility - you need cap room and flexibility to be successful. If you don’t have it, you can’t,” pointed out Stars President Jim Lites, who rejoined the organization following a four-year absence when Gaglardi took over in November 2011. “I think the difference between this year and last year is, there is a guy there that you can call and say, ‘We have an opportunity to sign this player to this contract and he can make a difference for us for 10 years,’ and that opportunity didn’t exist before, and I’m talking about the unrestricted free agent market. And, almost as importantly I think, is our opportunity to participate in what I’ll call the ‘We want to make a change and we got no flexibility’ market, which, if you recall, is how this franchise acquired Brad Richards - a contract that was stifling a team that had overspent on a player and it helps you get better. I think we’re there now and that’s the biggest difference.”
Complicating matters for the Stars - and every team, really - is that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires prior to next season and depending on what the next deal contains, the league’s financial backdrop could be considerably different. But the current system will be in place through the summer free agency period, so even with the CBA uncertainty, the Stars are still in good shape.
“I think there’s a number of things that come into play and the difficulty in some ways is that we don’t really know what the landscape is going to look like come Sept. 15,” Nieuwendyk said, noting the day the current CBA ends. “But the one thing I will say is that we are probably as well-positioned as any team moving forward. We can’t say for sure what the cap will be, we can’t say what some of the dynamics will be, but we are open for business and we’ll be able to talk to a lot of teams about a lot of the things - trades, free agency when it comes to July, and ways to make our team better. We have to be smart about that and we have to take that into account.”
“The systems will likely change, but for planning purposes, you got to work in this system for this year,” Lites added. “It does complicate things in the extent that any contract you sign this year is going to carry over into a new system, which will likely have a change in at least the overall expenditures, potentially, and you have to take all of those things into consideration when you’re developing a roster and plans for the future. You got to be careful. It’s better to be in a situation like the one we’re in, where that flexibility gives us an opportunity that other teams might be fearful of, where they may have spent on a player that gives them no flexibility and they have to dump. You’re better off waiting to see where everybody else is and then you make your move. Nobody wins next year’s Stanley Cup in July. The obvious thing not to do is to repeat mistakes other teams have done, where they’ve gone out and spent to the cap and they didn’t get the assets they needed to build.”
Probably the most recent example of that is the Buffalo Sabres, who got a new owner late last season and Terry Pegula vowed to open the vault for the traditionally stingy Sabres. They wound up signing guys like Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to expensive, lengthy free agent contracts and trading for gritty blueliner Robyn Regher, but that left them with very little cap space to make moves during the season, and the Sabres wound up missing the playoffs.
For the Stars, though, the benefits of having Gaglardi at the helm go beyond simply having the means to acquire top-end players. Overall, there just seems to be a pervasive sense of security among the guys already here that they will be taken care of.
“Right now, it doesn’t feel any different, we’re still in that down stage where you’re not happy with sitting here knowing there’s hockey games being played and you’re not a part of them,” noted captain Brenden Morrow
. “That doesn’t feel different. But I think when we get a chance to prepare for next season, knowing that it’s not a lender worrying about money, it’s actually Mr. Gaglardi, and he has the best interest of his club in mind and believes in the leadership of Joe and Gully, that they’re going to make the right adjustments, whether it’s free agents, bringing guys in July 1st - it’s comforting knowing that there’s someone with the best interest of the team in mind.”
“I’m sure that owner situation makes everybody more comfortable,” Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen
said. “The last couple of years, it was a really weird situation, it was always tough, you knew that we weren’t going to be able to get all the top players here. Now it’s a little different, if we find a very good player and he wants to come here, we’re able to pay them, too, which just makes it a little nicer situation. That’s great, it makes Dallas a place that other people want to come here and play because they know we’re trying to get on top and make good things happen.”
Overall, Gaglardi’s ownership of the club appears to have infused not only the Stars, but the outside perception of the entire organization, with renewed enthusiasm and optimism for the future.
“This summer is different than many summers, because from Day One since Tom Gaglardi took over, you could feel that cloud moved away from our organization,” Nieuwendyk said. “He’s passionate about winning, he cares about our group and we sensed that from the day he took over. You could feel it in the community, you could feel it all over the radio stations, there was a different buzz about our team and that’s really exciting, not only for the last couple of months but looking ahead to this summer and next season.”
“We have some stability now and we know going forward, there’s no problem with ownership issues,” Morrow said. “That’s exciting, knowing that there’s a plan in place and somebody that’s pushing the buttons with the best interests of the team at hand.”
And that makes a big difference.