The Blueprint For Rebuilding Without Tanking

Josh L.
July 05 2012 01:03PM

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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Josh writes for DefendingBigD, WFAA.com, and tracks both scoring chances and zone entries for Dallas Stars games. He can be found on Twitter at @JoshL1220 where he may or may not continue to speak in third person. Please follow his meagerly followed account so he can get a boost of self esteem one follower at a time.
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#1 Derek Zona
July 06 2012, 10:31AM
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@Scott Reynolds

"But I'd have a hard time thinking of that team as "rebuilding"."

As an Oilers fan, you've come to understand rebuilding as a whole other thing.

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#2 ubermiguel
July 05 2012, 01:32PM
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It all hinges on the quality of the amateur scouting. If they keep getting NHLers after the first half of the first round then they can rebuild without tanking.

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#4 Derek T.
July 05 2012, 06:23PM
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Vincour's gonna be a stud.

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#6 Scott Reynolds
July 06 2012, 10:17AM
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I really liked what the Stars did in shifting from Ribeiro to Roy. Roy is three years younger, and could end up being part of the core group going forward if the Stars decide to sign him.

I am having a bit of trouble seeing this as rebuilding though. Or at least, I'm having trouble seeing how this "rebuilding" differs from what any good team tries to do.

The Canucks, for instance, traded two older pieces to get David Booth (a player in his prime). During the summer they let Sami Salo walk and replaced him with Jason Garrison. Next, they'll likely move Roberto Luongo for younger players or picks. But I'd have a hard time thinking of that team as "rebuilding".

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#7 Scott Reynolds
July 06 2012, 12:15PM
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No, I think it's just a lot more meaningful to describe a team like the Oilers as rebuilding because they're doing something clearly different from most of the rest of the league. It's kind of meaningless to describe Dallas as rebuilding.

They're using their draft picks in an effort to draft good players? Every team tries to do that. They're acquiring veterans to serve as a bridge to their younger developing players? Most teams do that too. They're trying to build around a core either in or approaching their prime? Seems to me like almost every team does that as well. What is it that makes Dallas's approach different over the last, say, three years from that of Vancouver or Boston or New York? And if those teams are all rebuilding too, who isn't?

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#9 Micah
July 06 2012, 03:25PM
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I really enjoyed reading this and I'm not even a Stars fan. Very well written.

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#10 Scott Reynolds
July 07 2012, 08:56AM
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@Josh L.

Making a significant change to the core sounds like a reasonable starting point for a definition, though I'm not convinced that years of service is a good gauge for who "the core" is.

Maybe something like a change in at least four of the top nine positions (4F, 4D, 1G) within a calendar year while still trying to build a winner.

That would hit the Flyers transition from 2010-11 to 2011-12 (though that's partially because of Pronger leaving). It probably won't hit Dallas this year in that Lehtonen, Goligoski, Robidas, Daley, Eriksson and Benn all project to be back in featured roles. We could reduce that to three core players, or expand the timeline, but then it might be more challenging to find teams that don't qualify.

What criteria seems fair to you, Josh?

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#12 eric88
July 08 2012, 10:23AM
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Agreed not a stars fan but really enjoyed the article, nice work

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#13 Derek Zona
July 08 2012, 04:55PM
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@Scott Reynolds

Scott:

In a shorter span than Edmonton's rebuild vs 1.0, 2.1, 2.2 or 3.0, the Stars have completely overhauled the entire core of the team.

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#14 Derek Jedamski
July 09 2012, 10:20AM
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Derek Roy played reasonably difficult minutes last year. However, before that he did not face very difficult minutes. You are certainly correct in saying that they didn't feel the need to protect him in prior seasons, but he wasn't exactly given difficult minutes either.

His struggles this season seemed to result from fully recovering from his injury (they say potentially as much as 24 months to recover 100%) as well as an adjustment to some more difficult minutes. I have no doubt that he will bounce back next season.

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#15 Scott Reynolds
July 09 2012, 10:53AM
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@Derek Zona

A couple of things that I think are worth noting here:

1 - If we accept that the core of a team is 1G 4D and 4F, the Stars have just two of nine core players from 2007-08 still on the roster (Morrow and Robidas), and just three players from that roster projected to be core players in 2012-13 (Eriksson, Daley and Robidas). This is clearly a lot of turnover. But how unusual is it for this to happen? Would most teams have this much turnover, and if less, how much less?

2 - The Stars may or may not end up being a good team. They have missed the playoffs in each year since 2007-08. They have changed the core in those four years and they have avoided tanking while doing it, but they haven't exactly been good either. Will they be good going forward? If so, I think you can call this a success, but I know that I certainly don't have Dallas pegged as a top tier team in the Western Conference heading into 2012-13.

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