Dallas Stars: Wrapping Up A Busy First Month Of 2020 Offseason

It’s been a busy month of October for the Dallas Stars. But instead of spending it digging into the first month of their regular season schedule, they’ve spent it re-signing key pieces of the roster, working a draft, naming a head coach, unveiling an alternate jersey, and much more. Let’s look back at all that has happened.

35 days have passed since the Dallas Stars played the final game of an uncharacteristic 2019-20 regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Edmonton bubble.

On the one hand, it certainly feels like it’s been a month and change since the Stars were last on the ice. And yet, it somehow also feels like it’s been decades since their impressive run through the postseason and to the Stanley Cup Final came to a close.

But time has been a rather fruitless construct in the year 2020, so it kind of makes sense.

Regardless, the fact is that the Stars haven’t played in over a month. Following a loss in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sep. 28, the Stars concluded their 66-day stay in Edmonton and departed for their respective homes to begin an offseason of uncertainty.

In a typical NHL calendar year, we would be in the middle of July and the dog days of the offseason would be in full swing. So, it’s kind of normal in that regard.

But this October has been anything but typical for the Dallas Stars and the rest of the NHL.

While the players have been at home awaiting the beginning of next season’s proceedings, general managers and front offices have been stuck in a whirlwind of drafting, free agency negotiations, hirings, and tough decisions as they attempt to craft a contending roster in a flat-cap world for an upcoming season that still doesn’t have an official layout or start date.

It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but GMs are making the best of it. Big names have been signed to unusual contracts, notable trades have been made to help balance cap space, and the goaltending carousel was as wacky as it’s been in recent memory.

In the midst of this whirlwind is Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill.

Just a few weeks removed from winning his first Western Conference title as GM of the Stars and one week from ultimately falling in the Final, Nill dove headfirst into a busy first month of the offseason. He used five draft picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, examined his pending free agent list, negotiated with and signed a number of them, and put together a Free Agency game plan.

And since Oct. 1, a lot has gone down in the Dallas Stars world.

If you forgot what happened or simply need a refresher, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look back at all that went down in a busy month of October.

Stars navigate 2020 Draft

In his eight years as general manager, Jim Nill has just about seen it all when it comes to the NHL Draft. He’s executed draft day trades, won a top-three pick in a draft lottery, selected as high as third overall and as low as 30th overall in the first round, and has used anywhere from four to nine picks in each draft.

“Participated in a virtual draft” can now be added to the list.

Just eight days after wrapping up their playoff run in the Edmonton bubble, the Dallas Stars and the rest of the League dug into the 2020 NHL Draft from their respective home bases. The Stars, who had shipped away a number of picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts in trade negotiations, had five picks to use.

They ended up spending all five of them without adding another pick or moving from their original positions.

As a result, Dallas added center Mavrik Bourque at 30th overall, winger Antonio Stranges at 123rd overall, center Daniel Ljungman at 154th overall, winger Yevgeni Oksentyuk at 162nd overall, and goalie Remi Poirier at 185th overall.

It was the first draft of Nill’s tenure in which the Stars did not select a defenseman. In addition, it was also a unique draft in the fact that Dallas focused more on skill than size.

“I think it definitely has started that way,” said Joe McDonnell, the Stars director of amateur scouting, about drafting skill over size. “You’d love to have a player that’s 6-foot-2 or whatever and be able to do things that say a Stranges can do, but it depends year-to-year type of thing with what happens.

“I think it just goes to show that there’s definitely room for a smaller player. There’s always room for them, but they do have to have that special quality.”

With only one pick prior to the middle of the fourth round, the Stars seemed to take a few calculated risks. But those risks could end up having sizable payoffs.

Bourque was the second-to-last pick of the first round, but a number of media draft boards had him in the 16-20 range. He’s on the smaller side at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, but has a strong hockey IQ, makes quick, smart decisions, is an offensive catalyst, and possesses a strong work ethic.

Stranges was much higher than a fourth-round pick on a number of draft boards. His “10-2” skating style makes him a unique player and makes him even more difficult to defend. He relies on unpredictability to make his impact in the offensive zone and possesses unique offensive skill.

The same goes for Oksentyuk, who played with Stars 2018 first-round pick Ty Dellandrea in Flint (OHL) during the 2019-20 season. While he’s already 19 and doesn’t possess a lot of size, his 78 points in 58 games with the Firebirds makes him an intriguing grab in the sixth round.

The skill is certainly present in the Dallas Stars’ 2020 draft class. And while adding that skill may have required them to take some risks, it could pay off in a significant way down the road.

“You’re looking for the best player available, and it just kind of worked out this year that the best players were skilled guys,” Nill said following the draft. “They are a little bit on the smaller side, and that’s just the way the draft fell. But it worked out well.”

“One thing I think that these kids do have is that they play a lot bigger than what their listed size is, and that’s incredibly important,” added McDonnell.

Stars re-sign a few UFAs, bring in one new face

Less than 48 hours after concluding the draft, an NHL Free Agency period like no other got underway. And as always, the Stars found themselves in the thick of it.

Dallas had an early jump on the frenzy, re-signing pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Andrej Sekera to a two-year deal worth $3 million ($1.5 million AAV) on Oct. 4. In his first season with the Stars, the 34-year-old played a valuable role in the Dallas backend and on the penalty kill. He proved to be a steady and reliable third-pairing defender and gives the Stars more veteran depth for the next two years.

But as 11 a.m. CT approached on Friday, Oct. 9, there was no telling how the Stars’ free agency endeavors would pan out. Nill had confirmed that pending UFAs Anton Khudobin, Mattias Janmark, and Corey Perry in the days leading up to the opening, leaving many to wonder how the Stars may use the little bit of cap space that they possessed.

They ended up using a fair chunk of it on Khudobin, who briefly tested the market before signing a three-year contract worth $10 million ($3.33 million AAV) with Dallas. The goaltender led the charge in the crease during the Stars’ run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs and proved to be one of the most reliable and valuable goalies in this year’s free agency carousel.

Along with Ben Bishop (who is also under contract for three more years), the duo will look to continue its run as one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL.

24 hours later, Nill took his annual swing in the market and signed defenseman Mark Pysyk to a one-year deal worth $750,000. The 28-year-old just wrapped up his fourth season in Florida, and it was a unique one. Pysyk alternated between playing forward and defenseman throughout the year and finished with nine goals and 18 points in 58 games. Nill said that he sees Pysyk as a defenseman and that the veteran should add another layer of depth and balance to the Stars’ blue line.

“He’s a right-shot defenseman that helps balance off our pairs a little bit,” Nill said. “The thinking that went into it was anytime you can improve your team, you look at doing it. But you also have to work within the system, the cap, the payroll, and everything else. We’ve liked Mark for a few years. We’ve watched him and whenever I’ve had talks with Florida, it’s a name I’ve always thrown out there to see if he’s a person we could obtain.”

“It really comes down to hockey sense,” Nill added. “To be able to go back and forth isn’t easy to do. They’re two completely different positions, forward and defense. I remember scouting him way back in the Edmonton days in juniors and stuff. He was a first round pick to Buffalo. He’s always been a good player, good skill set, good hockey sense, and he skates well. We just think he’s a good addition.”

In addition, the Stars also signed goaltender Landon Bow to a one-year deal. Dallas did not tender him a qualifying offer ahead of the deadline, which allowed Bow to become a free agent. But after scanning the market and circling back, Bow and the Stars came to an agreement.

With Sekera, Khudobin, and Pysyk signed, the Stars’ cap space narrowed. But Nill was comfortable with the remaining space as he turned the focus to signing some of the team’s key restricted free agents.

RFAs qualified, re-signed (for the most part)

As Nill fielded questions regarding preparations for free agency from the media via Zoom on Oct. 8, his focus was largely centered around one objective: re-signing a trio of talented restricted free agents.

Radek Faksa, Denis Gurianov, and Roope Hintz all provided an intriguing case for negotiations after impressive 2019-20 campaigns. Faksa, who has been with Dallas the longest of the three, had continued his development as one of the Stars’ best defensive forwards and one of the best checking-line centers in the NHL. He was also eligible for arbitration, so Nill put him atop the priority list.

And on Oct. 11, the news became official as Faksa agreed to a five-year contract worth $16.25 million ($3.25 million AAV). He is now tied with Esa Lindell and Jamie Benn as the second-longest tenured player under contract with the Stars. It’s a deal that works for both sides and gives the Stars another successful homegrown talent.

“I’m happy that I’m with the same organization,” Faksa said. “It shows me that they are happy with my work and I will try to be the best every season. I would love to be with the Dallas Stars forever, so I’m happy that we did a five-year deal. Hopefully, I will play just for the Dallas Stars.”

“Radek is a Dallas Star,” Nill said of Faksa. “How he plays the game, how he is off the ice, the respect he has for the organization and the fans, he’s a Dallas Star. He made it very clear that he wants to be here as long as he can. We love the way he plays, how he plays the game, and the way he conducts himself.

“In the end, I think Radek was most comfortable with a five-year deal, and I’m happy for him. It’s great security for him, and it’s great for us. As I mentioned, he’s got the Dallas Stars tattooed on his heart, and that’s how he plays. It’s a good deal for everybody.”

Following the Faksa signing, Nill shifted to the two younger RFAs that turned in impressive campaigns in 2019-20. Less than two weeks later, the Stars and Gurianov agreed to a two-year, $5.1 million contract ($2.55 million AAV). Gurianov led Dallas with 20 goals in 64 games during his rookie season and followed it up with nine goals and 17 points in 27 games in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He effectively became one of their top goal-scoring threats at even strength and on the power play and seems to have a high ceiling, so the bridge deal gives him a chance to continue proving himself.

As of Nov. 2, Hintz is still unsigned. But there’s no reason to panic. Sometimes, negotiations take time with RFAs. Hintz was qualified before the deadline in early October, which means that the Stars retained his negotiating rights. Nill said on Thursday that he has had fair and great discussions with Hintz’s agent and that he hopes to get an agreement nailed down in the next week or two.

The Dallas Stars currently have a little under $3 million in projected cap space, and Nill believes that there is enough to fit Hintz and still have a little left over.

In addition, the Stars also qualified and re-signed Joel L’Esperance to a two-year, two-way contract.

The departures

In every offseason, some new faces arrive while some familiar faces depart for new horizons. It’s part of the business and part of the NHL makeup.

Such was the case in the first few days of the 2020 offseason as Nill allowed pending UFAs Mattias Janmark and Corey Perry explore the market. Janmark signed a one-year deal worth $2.25 million with the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 12, while Perry is still a free agent.

In addition, Gavin Bayreuther (signed with Columbus), Dillon Heatherington (signed in KHL), Reece Scarlett, Tony Calderone, and Josh Melnick became unrestricted free agents.

“Blackout” alternate jerseys unveiled

With all of the offseason and free agency hype slowing down as October rolled along, the Dallas Stars turned their fans’ attention to the team wardrobe. After beginning to tease a big announcement on Oct. 23, the Stars officially unveiled their long-awaited “Blackout” alternate jerseys on Oct. 28.

The jersey, which is primarily black with a new shade of green (called ‘Skyline Green’) highlighting key areas, gives the Stars a third jersey to add into the rotation during the season. It’s a new and bold look that should coexist well with the team’s unique Victory Green color scheme.

Topping off the look are the secondary logo with the outline of the state of Texas on the chest of the jersey, no shoulder patches, the popular Texas slogan “Come And Take It” inscribed on the inside of the collar, and a lone star with two stripes wrapping around the collar to mirror the Texas flag.

Rick Bowness officially named head coach

After months of expecting it and wondering when it would be made official, the Dallas Stars lifted the interim tag and hired Rick Bowness to be the team’s head coach on Thursday.

The deal is for two years and will give Bowness two full seasons to build on what he has started. After Jim Montgomery was relieved of his head coaching duties on Dec. 10, 2019, Bowness took over as the interim. He led the Stars to a 20-13-5 finish to the regular season that included a 9-3-3 month of February as well as an 0-4-2 skid that led the Stars into the League’s pause due to the pandemic.

Thoughts on Bowness’s efforts and success as head coach varied as the Stars returned for summer training camp in July and began preparing for the Return To Play.

But after a shaky start in the round robin and the first game of the First Round against the Calgary Flames, those thoughts began to align. After spending the pause studying the Dallas Stars and comparing them to the rest of the NHL, Bowness put his own stamp on the team through new strategies and plans. That stamp eventually helped the Stars run through some of the best teams in the League on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.

And though they fell two wins short of the ultimate goal, it was clear that Bowness’s efforts helped the Stars become a better and more dangerous team. The players raved about his leadership style during the playoffs and Nill pointed out the harmony between Bowness, the coaching staff, and the team. This was all done while Bowness was still technically an interim coach during the postseason.

Bowness mentioned on Thursday that he had been wanting to return as the full-time head coach for the 2020-21 season since mid-January, one month after taking over as interim. He’s one of three coaches in NHL history to coach in five different decades and has a long bill of success behind NHL benches, both as a head and assistant coach.

With Bowness back at the helm, the Stars will get a chance to pick up where they left off and continue their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Bowness, like many of the players on the roster, has come close to winning the Cup on numerous occasions, but has yet to lift it.

The next two years seem like a prime window for the Stars to win it all, and Bowness seems like the perfect man for the job after an emotional and resilient push through the 2019-20 season and playoffs.

Honka’s back

In the most recent news, the Dallas Stars made another transaction on Friday afternoon by signing defenseman Julius Honka to a one-year, two-way deal.

The signing comes a little over one year since Honka requested a trade from the Stars just before the opening of 2019 training camp. The 2014 first-round pick had spent the previous three seasons trying to cement himself as a regular starter on the Dallas blue line, but had not been able to do so under three different coaching staffs.

It had all come to a climax during the 2018-19 season when Honka had a prime chance to claim a starting spot under Montgomery’s coaching staff. Injuries hit the Stars’ defense hard in early November, which opened the door for Honka to prove his worth. But that didn’t end up happening, and Honka was cemented as a healthy scratch. He played in just 11 of the team’s final 61 games and fell down the depth chart as the Stars acquired defensemen via trade in the back half of the season.

The team issued a qualifying offer to him in the summer of 2019 to retain his negotiating rights, but he requested a trade just before camp. Nill began searching for a trade partner, but didn’t find the right price by the December deadline, which meant that Honka could not play in the NHL for the remainder of the season. He signed a deal with JyP HT Jyvaskyla in Finland and played 46 games overseas before the pandemic hit.

Now, he’s back with the Dallas Stars organization. At the moment, his odds of cracking the roster seem even more slim than before considering the depth the Stars currently possess on the blue line. But at the very least, Honka is a nice addition to the Texas Stars defense and could surprise during training camp to improve his standing on the depth chart. Only time will tell.

But as of now, the Stars seem to be just about wrapped up after a busy first month of the 2020 offseason. They have their 1B goaltender. They have one of the deepest and most talented blue lines in the NHL. They have their head coach. And once Roope Hintz is signed, they will have a well-balanced offense of veterans and budding superstars.

October is usually a month reserved for the beginning of an NHL regular season. But in a weird year like 2020, it’s only right that the month be flipped to host the high point of the offseason.

And like every other offseason, the Dallas Stars were busy checking boxes on their to-do list and getting ready to make another run at history in the 2020-21 season.

“The organization is in a good spot right now,” Nill said. “With the core of our team and the young kids coming up, we’ve got lots of options. We like where we’re at. We didn’t have to go chase anybody in free agency too much. We like our depth and where we’re at with everything else.

“Right now, we’re just in a good spot. Like everybody else, we just need to get through this uncertainty and we all will. We look forward to when we get back on the ice in front of fans.”