Stars go nowhere without talent development

By Keith Riskey

Editor’s Note: This article was originally slated to be posted last week (6/10/2002), so some of the references are now dated. We apologize.

Other than the typical voodoo and prayer that accompany our fervent hopes for an (unlikely) Red Wings demise, we Stars fans wouldn’t appear to have much to get excited about this postseason. But oddly enough enough the Stars-related chat room and water cooler banter has continued on as strong as ever where Dallas sports fans frequent. Perhaps its because most of us are hotly anticipating this coming offseason like Tom Hicks is Santa Claus.

You can’t blame us for having mighty high expectations of improvement after an almost masochistic season spending long hours watching pure televised hockey [expletive deleted], but questions remain. Will Dallas’s moneyed owner flesh out the roster with a big name free agent or trade (or two or three or seven)? Will Tippett’s new coaching style have the Stars scoring in buckets? Will these improvements vault the Stars back up to elite status? The short answers to these questions are yes, no, and probably not.

Of course, Hicks, Armstrong, and company can do a lot in the immediate to engineer the Stars return to the top of the NHL. The Stars have a lot of needs they can address this offseason from scoring wingers to ornery forecheckers. All that stuff would be terrific. But – bottom line here — this team really isn’t going anywhere without the presence of one big (and currently missing) key: talent development.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m just saying this because I write for Hockey’s Future and am looking at the team from my own conditioned (and far askew) viewpoint. Ok, you got me. I will admit that drafting in the NHL may not be as central as it is in basketball or football (sports without minor league systems). I will also admit that talent development may not be all there is because spend-happy teams can fill in missing holes in their line-up so easily. But there are precious few NHL champion teams that – upon close study – did not receive considerable benefit from past talent development (even the .. *puke* .. Red Wings).

I don’t want to say it’s totally impossible for a team to purchase the Stanley Cup. Despite what we like to think, it’s definitely possible — just as anything is possible in this sport. It’s also possible that Sergei Federov could need sudden spleen surgery and Sami Kapanen could score an inadvertent hat trick off his noggin this evening, but I’ve come to realize that (no matter how many poodles I sacrifice to the dark overlord) the likelihood is slim. And the Stars surely are not going to win the Cup just by clearing some roster space and picking up UFA’s like Tony Amonte, Bill Guerin, or (the neigh-unstoppable) Benoit Hogue.

When the Dallas Stars peaked a few seasons ago, decisions with young talent played a huge factor in their dominance. The rise of grinding (but talented) wingers like Lehtinen and Langenbrunner (the Stars second and third biggest goal scorers in the playoffs) filled out the top lines wonderfully. The success of home-grown Hatcher and Matvichuk gave the Stars the most threatening (and successful) blue line in the NHL. This blue line succeeded in frustrating opposition season after season and – at times – seemed almost impenetrable. Of course, the exchange of drafted commodities (i.e., Iginla for J. Nieuwendyk) brought the Stars some of their most effective additions as well. The end result was an energetic, excited, and talented team with a good combination of hungry veterans and highly effective 20-somethings. Certainly Belfour and Hull (who — apparetly — scored the SECOND biggest goal of his career for the Stars) played a role, but the Stars were solid and winning before they acquired these two (a factor that no doubt proved attractive to both and resulted in them coming to Dallas).

It’s easy to find parallel situations with other champion teams in the NHL, though I’ll spare you too much detail (after all these teams are not the Stars and – hence – are not nearly as interesting). But – to summarize – young talent provides hockey franchises with these things.

  • 1)Young energy and enthusiasm: Look at how young Pavel Datsyuk has played for the (*vomit*) Red Wings during the seasonal doldrums and in the postseason when his team needed a boost most. The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports and without fresh troops and incentive its nearly impossible to muster the sheer will and determination needed to win it.
  • 2)The ability to keep costs down: Not even the NY Rangers can buy all their players. Young players are cheap so it stands to reason that the more talented youngsters you have, the more needs you can address via free agency.
  • 3)Trade commodities: Being young always bumps up a hockey players value significantly. The only way to get a positive immediate return when making a trade for immediate help is by offering potential.
  • 4)Selling free agents: Free agents usually want to go to organizations with future (in addition to immediate potential).

So where are our next Jere Lehtinens? Our Richard Matvichuks of tomorrow? Even the next Jarome Iginla-esque commodities that we could trade off for star players? Some claim they are already in the Stars system. Others claim the Stars pool of prospects is way too shallow. But we can’t possibly know without leaving behind the unsettling trend of the past few seasons and actually playing a few in the NHL (and that includes actually giving them ice time when they suit up). For seasons, I’ve watched other teams who (shockingly) have even helped their youngsters settle in or overcome a few mistakes upon being introduced to the NHL, and they are now reaping the rewards. As stated, even if the Stars don’t hold on to any or all these young players it give them potential to make better decisions later, to wheel and deal when the time is right, and it forces the veterans to play their best game (to keep up with the youngsters) each and every night.

In a way, it’s difficult to blame the Stars. Coaching doesn’t like risks. Any coach feels the pressure and responsibility of playing the most proven players because winning is the bottom line. But this team has reached a point where it cannot improve by leaps and bounds without rolling the dice. Play only the “proven” players, and we will be left holding the bag at the trading deadline and again watching the postseason on ESPN.

If the Stars were the #3 seed again, if they had cruised to another Pacific Division title then – by all means – they could just pick up another sniper and be good to go I’m sure. But this team’s problems (which included not only scoring but grinding, transion ‘D’, goaltending, etc.) can’t be patched up with a little Armstrong™ brand superglue in the offseason. This team needs new energy, this team needs to be an attractive place for free agents, and this team needs the ability to make effective trades. The Dallas Stars just aren’t good enough anymore to expect a few veteran free agents to bring them back to Pacific Division supremacy. The scoring is anemic, the defense is spottier than ever, the character and energy is questionable, and there seem to be gaps in virtually every line. Big improvements necessitate big change, and that goes way above and beyond free agency.