Tearful Reunions and the Quest to Fill Brad’s Hole

The biggest prize in the free agency pool this year was a double whammy of both top center Brad Richards, and his teeth.  No doubt, the man is a top line centerman who can win faceoffs and play extremely well with a man up.  He has had some pretty abysmal +/- numbers lately, but that isn’t necessarily his fault.  People have yapped for hours upon hours about the Richards deal, so I’ll spare you all from my gum flapping and will instead focus on the Mr. Ed shaped hole now residing in Dallas, and what the organization has done to fill it.  And surprisingly enough, they’ve done a spectacularly solid job of mending the exit wound.  The Dallas Stars have so far signed six free agents to accompany their draft picks this year, and they’ve continually made the right moves all offseason.

Draft wise, apart from Jamieson Oleksiak (their 1st round pick and 14th overall), nobody really stands out as being all that spectacular or promising.  And honestly, the main reason Oleksiak stands out at all is because you could spot him in a crowded room from half a mile away.  That’s right, the 18 year old defender stands at a whopping 6’7” and 244lbs.  He allegedly has great puck moving abilities and remarkably impressive stick handling not only for a young defender, but also one who’s certifiably gigantic.  As suspected, he’s already drawing comparisons to Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers, but I’m not so quick to put him in such lofty company so soon, the kid still has a lot to prove.  He’ll grow into a good defender, no doubt, just not this year or the next.  He just barely learned how to drive a car, let’s not go Japanese over him quite so quickly.

Despite my skepticism on the potential of their prominent draft pick, I think that Dallas most definitely scored on their free agency activity.  Richards is irreplaceable at the moment, there is nobody in the organization nor available on the market with the skillset he currently has, but the team doesn’t need another Richards.  He was great, but he wasn’t the lynchpin in their success over the last several years.  People like Mike Ribeiro, Brendan Morrow, Stephane Robidas, and until last year, Mike Modano, have been the true heart and soul of the team if you ask me.  Richards didn’t get along with the owners in Dallas and seemed pretty set on jumping ship once his contract was up.  He wanted to win, first and foremost, and the poor financial handlings of the team made it clear to him that he wouldn’t win the Cup in Texas.  He may have been the point leader the last two years, but when I think of the leaders on the team, I think of Morrow’s steely determination or Ribeiro’s strange fish eyes.  So with his departure, the team didn’t lose a leader as much as it lost a huge scorer, and with this in mind it’s actually a lot easier to fill the void he left in his wake.

To demonstrate, Dallas signed four forwards during the first days of free agency.  The first I’ll discuss is right winger Radek Dvorak.  Dvorak was a 65+ point player one season out of the last 16, and it was ten years ago.  Since then he’s reached the 50 point mark only once and struggled to get past 35 for most of the rest, hopping between Edmonton, St. Louis, and Florida before being traded to Atlanta and tallying a grand total of one assist in 13 games.  So he’s old and declining, not quite the best addition to a team full of solid, consistent point getting veterans.  Not the best signing but he’s a good depth player and he certainly can’t hurt to have around.

Next up are a pair of centers, the former Blackhawk, Jake Dowell, and the former Coyote, Vernon Fiddler.  Fiddler scores even less than Dvorak, but I’d rather have him on my team.  Why?  The man is a solid and underrated defensive forward, capable of winning faceoffs and killing penalties on par with any Selke finalist.  He may lack a scoring touch, and with Richards gone they definitely need one, but he generally stays out of the box and is a great shutdown center that will fit well with Dallas’s style.  Dowell is another acquisition that fans should be in favor of.  Dowell played decently well in Chicago, he was never a standout player on a team full of superstars, but he played his role well enough and was rarely a negative force on the ice.  In Dallas, his style of play translates better with what the team as a whole tries to do.  There was very little toughness in Chicago, while in Dallas it’s the opposite.  Brendan Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, and youngster Jamie Benn handle almost all of the offense nowadays, while the rest of the team focuses on playing a tough, physical, gritty hockey, just the way Dowell can play when he needs to.  I personally think that Chicago focused too much on finesse last season, and while people who can be bruisers certainly can adapt to skate better and score more (Troy Brouwer and Bryan Bickell are prime examples), Dowell just isn’t one of those people, and he’ll play much better if he isn’t being pressured to be pretty.  Not to mention, he’ll probably end up on a line with another former Wisconsin Badger and perennial good luck charm, Adam Burish, which will certainly provide great chemistry and up each other’s games.

The final forward signing is one I really, really like.  In an effort to actually regain some of the lost scoring ability, Dallas signed Michael Ryder for two years (at 3.5 million a year).  Ryder’s last few seasons haven’t been as impressive as his first few in Montreal, but he’s a seasoned veteran who won the Cup last year, can still undoubtedly score, and has played in a defensive system similar to Dallas while he was in Boston.  I believe there is more room for him to play aggressive offense in Dallas than there was in Bean Town, which was an even more defensive system.  This is the perfect blend for him, it’s a defensive focus (which he’s used to now) with a high scorers that are able to put the puck in the net with the best of them.  Bonus factoid: Ryder was a linemate with Ribeiro back in Montreal several years ago, so perhaps the reuniting of old buddies will reignite the spark within the both of them to start putting up their old numbers.  I think this will play out nicely, and will definitely be anticipating the regular season.

Rounding out their signing blitz are two defensemen, Calgary’s Adam Pardy and Edmonton’s Sheldon Souray.  Pardy looked promising for the Flames, but had an injury shortened season last year and the full potential of his talent remains a mystery, and Dallas hopes he can realize it with them.  Dallas doesn’t have any huge name blueliner like Shea Weber or Niklas Lidstrom, so I suppose he could become a force down there, but don’t expect him to be a savior of any sort.  The one I’m really interested in, is the signing of 34-year-old Souray.  This man bleeds the essence of sheer determination, and is one monstrously scary presence on the ice.  Not only will he rough up any opponents who step out of line (making him one of several on the team willing) and hit like a Mack truck, but he can score.  The Dallas Stars franchise record for most goals by a defenseman is 19, Studly Wonderbomb has scored over 20 twice in the last four years, and the two in which he didn’t were because of a crippling hand injury after the first one and being banished to the AHL after the second.  That’s the other thing going for him, he’s a scrapper with a temper and a howitzer shot, and he has got to be extraordinarily furious with his treatment in Edmonton.  Public disputes with the ownership of the franchise and his request for a trade lead to his eventual exile into the minor leagues, despite being far and away the best defender the Oilers had on payroll.  He wants to play in the big leagues, he has the ability (he actually holds the unofficial record for hardest slap shot (106.6 mph)), he has the drive, the only question is whether or not his attitude will improve.  If Dallas falters, is he going to be a baby and refuse to give his all?  He only has a one-year contract, so we’ll see if he gives 110% throughout the year.  Personally, I believe he will.

Once the dust around Richards settles and people remember that he didn’t spawn out of the ooze, more casual fans will take a look at Dallas and see what they’ve done to fill his hole.  If the casual fan has half a brain, they’ll realize that while they didn’t sign any one individual player that will replace their top center, they’ve certainly built a very good team in his wake, and one that I believe will agitate their opponents both through physicality and the scoreboard.  I see a bright season on the horizon down south.

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