By Allan Muir
Midway through the second period of last night's 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, a message appeared on the video board teasing a look at the new jerseys the Dallas Stars will be wearing in 2013-14. The news generated a buzz through the crowd of 9,000 or so diehards who'd been beaten into silence by another error-filled performance from the Stars.
The third period comes around, and finally, the big reveal. A curtain parts and out comes some idiot in a horse-head mask wearing the much-despised mooterus jersey from a decade ago.
Ha ha! April Fool's! It's a joke! Get it?
You know, if this had been a playoff team, or even one that was taking care of business instead of getting blown out at home for the third time in a week, maybe this bit works. Instead, the ill-conceived gag served to perfectly encapsulate the 2013 Dallas Stars: Tease something big, then spectacularly under-deliver.
The Stars, well, new owner Tom Gagliardi, made the mistake last summer of believing a couple of 40-somethings like Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney would push this close-but-no-cigar squad back into the playoffs.
It hasn't worked. There have been bright spots in this roller coaster season--a 2-0 win in Los Angeles two weeks ago comes to mind--but there have been too many passionless efforts like the one last night. And so, with the team on the verge of making it five consecutive years without a sniff of the postseason, the Stars surely realize it is time to start the fire sale.
That won't be an easy decision for GM Joe Nieuwendyk to stomach. He's a fierce competitor who has been consumed by the team's failings under his watch. And you can understand how easy it is to buy into the idea that a string of near-misses calls for tinkering, not rebuilding. But he only has to look halfway across the Metroplex at the Dallas Cowboys to see how futile it is to try plugging holes in a ship with that many leaks.
But if he's being intellectually honest with himself, as Jay Feaster finally was in Calgary, he knows this team doesn't need patches. It needs a long-term solution. Nieuwendyk took a brilliant first step in that direction last summer, sending Mike Ribeiro to Washington for Cody Eakin and a pick. The former first rounder has been everything the team could have hoped for. Eakin plays an energetic two-way game as the team's third line center and has earned the chance to contribute on both the power play and the penalty kill. He's still raw, but in every game he shows signs that he can be a factor for the franchise for the next decade.
That's the sort of long ball Nieuwendyk was hoping to hit last week when he dealt captain Brenden Morrow to the Pens for another former first rounder, defenseman Joe Morrow. There's no guarantee that deal will work out as well as Eakin. In fact, the odds are against it. But it was absolutely the right pitch to swing at.
And Nieuwendyk needs to keep swinging.
The timing couldn't be better. With so much of the top talent already off the market, Nieuwendyk is one of the few who can restock the shelves with high-end goods.
Jagr is capable of playing a top-six role for a contender, and early reports were that he was being sent to the Bruins on Tuesday for two prospects and a pick. Derek Roy is the ideal second-line center, and he'll be plying his trade in Vancouver in return for a reported second-round pick and a prospect. Eric Nystrom is the ultimate junkyard dog. He has hands of stone but he's fast, physical and his motor's always revving.
And there's no reason to stop at the UFAs. Whitney has a year left on his deal at $4.5 million cash and cap. Solid effort, valuable veteran presence. Same with Stephane Robidas ($2.85M salary, $3.3M cap hit), a gritty blueliner who could excel in a diminished role.
Could those two help the Stars transition moving forward? Sure, but you can buy character over the summer at a steep discount. This is the time to cash in and bet on picks and prospects for the future.
Running up the white flag isn't an easy sell, especially in a market where dwindling fan interest will take a hit with another playoff DNQ.
But if the Stars have learned anything this year, it's that the fans are tired of snake oil. Winning sells. But so does hope.