Why next season’s Dallas Stars have a higher ceiling – and a lower floor

Matt Larkin
Stephen Johns and Kari Lehtonen. Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ending a season with a 6-1 home loss in a Game 7 obviously leaves a bitter aftertaste. But it could’ve been worse for the Dallas Stars.

The lopsided letdown in the Central Division final was embarrassing but hardly signified the end of something. Quite the opposite. The Stars are beginning something: an era of what might be sustained dominance. There’s an excellent chance we merely look back on 2015-16 as their warmup act.

The Stars jumped from out of the post-season to second overall in the NHL and first in the Central Division. They got a second straight MVP-caliber year from captain Jamie Benn. Tyler Seguin continued to score at an elite pace. Sophomore D-man John Klingberg busted out for 58 points. The versatile Cody Eakin has become one of the game’s best third-line centers, and Jason Spezza’s 33 goals were one short of his career high. The Stars led the league in scoring and finished second in 5-on-5 Corsi For Per 60. They were an offensive juggernaut, and they have room to grow in that regard. Power winger Valeri Nichushkin hasn’t realized his potential yet but is still just 21. Prospects Jason Dickinson and Brett Ritchie lurk on the roster bubble, with Denis Gurianov on the way eventually.

The Stars also came within one victory of the Western Conference final without Seguin, who missed all but one playoff game with an Achilles injury. So they have a lot going for them, especially on offense. Their best players remain in their 20s. Franchise cornerstones Benn and Klingberg are signed long term. This team has as high a ceiling as any in the NHL. That’s why we picked Dallas to reach the Stanley Cup final in our 2016-17 THN Yearbook.

Note that we didn’t pick them to win it all, however. The Stars are a strange beast in that, for all their upside, they have a significant amount of downside in 2016-17, too. Or they at least raise a truckload of questions.

Read more

Report: Radim Vrbata set to return to Coyotes on one-year deal

Jared Clinton
Radim Vrbata (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

After seasons in Colorado, Carolina and Chicago, it was as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes that Radim Vrbata really established himself as an offensive threat and a steady point producer in the NHL. Now, after two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, it appears Vrbata is ready to return to the desert.

According to Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan, Vrbata is nearing a one-year deal with Arizona which will see him return for a third stint with the Coyotes. Morgan reported the deal could become official Monday.

Vrbata’s return to Arizona wasn’t exactly an expected outcome, but it’s one that makes sense for the 35-year-old winger. Though he had the highest scoring season of his career in his first campaign with the Canucks — Vrbata scored 31 goals and 63 points while playing primarily with the Sedins — the longest consistent stretch of productive play came when Vrbata was a Coyote. And in Arizona, Vrbata would be almost assured a top-six role, meaning he could be in line for another 20-goal campaign. Read more

Agent says Vermette has five offers, decision should come by Monday

Jared Clinton
Antoine Vermette (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

A surprising summer buyout by the Arizona Coyotes has left Antoine Vermette without a team for the upcoming campaign, but Vermette’s agent, Allan Walsh, said that won’t be the case much longer.

On Saturday morning Walsh announced, via Twitter, that Vermette is currently mulling over five offers and should come to a decision about where he’ll play next season by Monday.

It’s no surprise that Vermette, 34, has his fair share of offers, and he could be an excellent addition to the middle-six of a team’s roster so long as he doesn’t come in at too high a price. Getting Vermette to come in on a cheaper deal might not be difficult, either, given that he’s set to earn $1.25 million in each of the next two campaigns as part of the buyout by the Coyotes. Read more

Senators expect to reach deal with Ceci ‘in the next few weeks’

Jared Clinton
Cody Ceci (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Senators defenseman Cody Ceci took a sizeable step forward during the 2015-16 campaign and Ottawa is hoping that continues to be the case. But first thing’s first: the Senators and Ceci need to find some common ground and agree to a deal that gets the restricted free agent locked up for the coming campaign.

With less than a month until training camp starts, and exactly two months until the Senators open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ceci has yet to ink a new contract. But GM Pierre Dorion doesn’t seem concerned about the contract situation with the 22-year-old blueliner. In fact, he sounds quite confident a deal will get done.

“J.P (Barry) and I exchanged emails (Thursday) and they were really positive emails,” Dorion said, according to the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch. “We’re still looking at different angles and what we can do for a contract but I have a lot of faith.” Read more

Vesey narrows list to handful of teams as he approaches free agency

Jared Clinton
Jimmy Vesey (Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

He was drafted by Nashville, traded to Buffalo but could end up signing somewhere else altogether. No matter where he ends up, though, the Jimmy Vesey free agency sweepstakes is nearing its culmination.

Come Monday, Vesey, 23, will be free to sign with whichever team he pleases as he becomes an unrestricted free agent, and according to his agent, Peter Fish, the Harvard standout won’t be taking a trip around the league to decide where he wants to end up. Instead, Vesey will have a list of four or five teams that he wants to meet with to discuss his future, after which he’ll make his decision and put an end to what has been months of talk about his destination.

“What Jimmy wants to do is see it through,” Fish said, via the Boston Herald’s Stephen Harris. “He’s wanted to go to free agency and he’s going to see it through. There’s about four to five teams other than Buffalo that he wants to hear from. And then after that he’s going to make a decision.” Read more

The Red Wings are in limbo – and Ken Holland is OK with that

Matt Larkin
Red Wings GM Ken Holland. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Assessing the Detroit Red Wings’ off-season depends on what kind of person you are.

If you see the world sunny-side up, summer 2016 was a rah-rah moment for the franchise. The Wings, hovering around the playoff bubble for the past few seasons in the Eastern Conference, said goodbye to their best forward of the past decade, Pavel Datsyuk, but they brought in some veteran help. They threw $31.5 million over six years at center Frans Nielsen. They snagged Minnesota Wild castoff Thomas Vanek at the low-risk, high-gain price of $2.6 million over one year. They added center Steve Ott for veteran leadership. They re-signed speedy pivot Darren Helm and top blueliner Danny DeKeyser long-term. Detroit has made the playoffs 25 straight years and, to an optimist, the off-season sends the message the franchise wants a 26th berth. Maybe the Wings can ascend into something more than a bubble team if young center Dylan Larkin and goalie Petr Mrazek continue ascending and become organizational pillars.

The crabby pessimist, perpetually trailed by a rain cloud, isn’t so happy about the Wings’ summer. This team has finished with a .567 points percentage twice in the past three seasons, marking 16-year lows. The Wings haven’t picked in the top five at the NHL draft since Keith Primeau in 1990. They haven’t picked in the top 10 since Martin Lapointe in 1991. That’s 25 years, matching the playoff streak. Hardly a coincidence. The pessimist might say the Wings have become victims of their own success, which includes four Stanley Cups since 1996-97. They’re never bad enough to blow the operation up and rebuild around superstar draft picks, and they’re no longer good enough, it seems, for a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.

So who’s right? Will the Wings doom themselves to mediocrity if they limp forward with a good-but-not great roster, or are they on the cusp of a turnaround, fuelled by improving youth and an injection of free-agent talent? The person best equipped to tackle the topic is, naturally, Ken Holland, Detroit’s GM since 1997. And he’s refreshingly candid about the state of his team.

“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’” Holland said. “When you’ve got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Nielsen… we’ve either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may.

Read more

Report: Kris Russell left waiting as teams look to open up cap space

Jared Clinton
Kris Russell (Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Kris Russell’s stay on the free agent market has lasted much, much longer than he probably expected, and the 29-year-old blueliner is reportedly stuck in somewhat of a holding pattern while he waits for teams to open up cap space to get him under contract.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Russell is “still waiting for a few teams to clear money,” in order for a potential deal to get done for the free agent rearguard. That money needs to be cleared in order for Russell to sign likely means he’s not going to be taking any sizeable pay cut from the $2.6 million he earned during the 2015-16 season.

While it might not seem like much, if Russell is able to wait this long into the off-season and sign a deal that doesn’t see him take a step back in terms of salary or term, that’s quite the feat. Read more

So why hasn’t your team done anything this off-season?

Flyers GM Ron Hextall. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

August marks hockey’s “silly season.” Very little happens. And idle hands are the devils’ playthings, right? Countless blog commenters and Twitter trolls dust off the “Slow news day?” insult whenever we find something to talk about. During the month before NHL training camps begin, fan bases twiddle their thumbs. And think. And overthink. And worry.

“Why hasn’t my team DONE anything this off-season?”

You know who you are. You, from that city with the sandwich everyone needs to try. Your team has been uncomfortably quiet this off-season, with nary a big trade or free agent splash. Should you panic over your team’s 2016-17 outlook? Or will you end up patting your favorite GM on the back for staying the course?

Here’s a rundown of the summer’s most tranquil teams – and whether their fan bases should worry.

Read more