The Blueprint For Rebuilding Without Tanking

Updated: July 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm by Josh L.

Image from the Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Stars have been in a weird state of limbo for four years now. They’ve been one of those tweener mediocre teams since their last playoff berth after a decade of sustained success. Those teams generally have two directions they can go to get their franchises back on track. They can either tank and rack up the lottery picks or rebuild on the fly.

I used to lean towards the tankers. The closest thing I ever came to witnessing a full rebuild firsthand was the Stars dropping into the bottom five to draft Ric Jackman in 1996, and he had absolutely nothing to do with the immediate transformation of the franchise the following year. Needless to say, my thoughts on the topic weren’t fully vetted.

I’m not going to spend the energy trying to convince you one way or the other on the broader topic of tanking vs. trying. I’m more interested in the trying to retool on the fly side of the equation. Joe Nieuwendyk and the Stars have been ruthlessly implementing change in Texas since the season ended. He has his detractors, but he’s done yeoman’s work with the Stars roster the past two weeks and for the organization as a whole since the Finals ended. The Stars are laying out a blueprint for rebuilding on the fly that is going largely unnoticed.

Building The Foundation

I’ll let Mr. Zona get us started:

I really liked Dallas’ draft last year, and Joe Niuwendyk’s staff did it again this year. Radek Faksa is a year away from the NHL and an all-around talent and a big centre. They followed that up with Mike Winther at 54. He’s a playmaker and has all kinds of agility. They can wait for a couple of years on him to develop. In between those two, they grabbed Ludvig Bystrom at 43. Bystrom has all of the skills, but lacks strength – Dallas can wait.

They also tacked on a talented Finnish defenseman, Esa Lindell and Gemel Smith another forward with speed. Smith is really small, by the way, one of the smallest players I saw on Saturday.

If the Stars decide to target some offense in Jiri Hudler and some defense in Daniel Winnik or Jay McClement next week, they’ve put together a really strong base for a team. It’s pretty amazing, no? A rebuild without tanking? I was told this was not possible.

Not only is it possible, but the Stars appear to have pulled it off with their flurry of moves between the draft and the first week of free agency. The Stars strange financial situation of the past three to four years basically mandated that they had to be mediocre. They were unable to spend much anything more than the salary floor because excess spending was never in the best interest of the crumbling Hicks Sports Group or the 30+ lenders who more or less owned the team. Tanking was never an option because it would drive the value of the franchise down.

Because of that situation (and Nieuwendyk’s personal feelings against trading picks) the Stars kept and used all of their premium picks from 2009-2012. Some of their first round decisions have been questionable. Jack Campbell for one and punching bag Scott Glennie being the other. The Stars are very high on both players though. In watching a couple AHL games late in the year both players were impressive.

They’ve really been hitting later in the draft though. Prior to this most recent draft the Stars had 11 forwards in their system who had NHL equivalent point totals of 24 or more. That includes three wingers (Austin Smith, Reilly Smith, and Alex Chiasson) over 40 points. These prospects, most likely, aren’t superstars. A lot of them are NHL talent though. The same story is true on the blueline. They are very high on Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Philip Larsen, and Brenden Dillon with Jyrki Jokipakka and John Klingberg playing in Europe.

Misleading Indicators

The prospect foundation is nice, but the Stars also have talented young core pieces in place. Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, and Kari Lehtonen is a hell of a start for a franchise. When the Stars traded Mike Ribeiro at the draft it signalled to the hockey world that the Stars were going into a rebuild. In a way that’s true. What they were doing was shifting the focus of the roster to Jamie Benn. He was an elite scorer last year, but he wasn’t put in the best position to succeed because of how much they had to protect Ribeiro. That will be different in 2013 for sure.

Both the Stars top and third lines were mediocre possession lines last year. The biggest culprit in the top six was Ribeiro with his -4.4 Corsi Relative in cupcake minutes. The Vern Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, and Eric Nystrom line was solid defensively, but offered nothing in the way of offense. Only 46 forwards in the league were on the ice for fewer shots than Fiddler.

Their astonishing lack of depth up front is what forced that trio into a checking role. Brenden Morrow was off all year. For half of the season Adam Burish and Steve Ott were on the wings with Jamie Benn. That just isn’t a recipe for success. Any number of prospects could have been rushed for the 2013 season to fill those holes. Instead, with as little long term risk as possible, they pursued stop gap options in Derek Roy, Ray Whitney, and Jaromir Jagr.

Roy and Whitney are the two more interesting acquisitions. Roy has a history of playing tougher minutes for the Sabres. At worst the Sabres haven’t felt the need to protect Roy. At best, last season, he performed well in pretty tough ice time. Whitney is a guy not known for his defense, yet Dave Tippett hasn’t felt the need to protect him the past two seasons. Last year, in fact, Whitney’s line was routinely matched against the top line of the opposition. Both players have a history of doing well in possession metrics too. The Stars seem to love #fancystats now.

Foundation Repaired

The veteran additions to the roster have given the Stars a stable foundation with which to introduce their young players to the NHL. No prospect is going to be required to step into tough minutes or too much responsibility. They haven’t handed out long term contracts so the prospects also have a lot of upward mobility. It may not seem like a rebuild in the tradition sense of the word, but everything the Stars have done is geared towards creating a positive atmosphere to allow their young players to develop.

So, when you see analysis such as this from EJ Hradek…

2 yrs ago, got run out of DAL at age 40, but now they sign 2 40-year-olds (Jagr/Whitney). Youth movement?

…feel free to laugh not only at the comparisons of 40 year old Modano to the highly productive Whitney, but at the shallowness of the analysis. Fortunately noted prospect supporter Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News gets it.

Of course, it all has to come together, but the Stars have started the transition forward. The coaches have some veterans as crutches, but they are definitely going to have to rely on the 20-something core players more than ever.

And that’s a big reason all of these changes are being made — to move toward the youthful future but to do so with a safety net in place.

That phrase is the key for rebuilding without tanking. You don’t need 1-1 picks for four drafts in a row to build a team. Draft and develop your prospects then give them a structured positive environment where they are given ample opportunities to prove their worth. The Stars have executed that plan almost flawlessly this offseason. It should be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

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