In 1967 Punch Imlach was widely criticized for keeping an aging Maple Leafs team together. They were known around the NHL as the over the hill gang, and many thought it was extremely unlikely that they could go into the playoffs and re-live the past glories they had in the early 60s. The critics turned out to be wrong, and the “Over the Hill Gang” won the Stanley Cup, the last before expansion, and the last for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Fast forward to today. The game has changed, the market has changed, 30 teams, free agency, mega salaries, and a salary cap. New strategies like the Neutral Zone Trap, the left wing lock, and other systems have also changed the game. The hockey world is far different from what it was 45 years ago. In this environment we see a new team assembling an over the hill gang. The Dallas Stars have signed a pair of 40 year olds in Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr in free agency. Whitney gets $9 million over two years, and Jagr will get 4.5 million for one year.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk has stated that the plan is to have both of these players play in the team’s top 6. Will it work? Can an over the hill gang have success in 2012? Lets take a look.
Jagr is expected to play on a line with Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. Jagr had a lot of success this past season scoring 54 points in 72 games on a line with Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux. I think he will also be able to have success with his new stars teammates. Eriksson is a talented offensive force who regularly puts up between 25-30 goals, and 70-75 points. Many thought that the Swedish winger would see his numbers suffer without Brad Richards this season, however they did not, as he put up over 70 points for the third straight year. The 26 year old is just reaching the prime of his career and is a capable two way player. The line should be centered by Jamie Benn. The talented 22 year old was a 5th round steal in the 2007 NHL Draft. Benn has played three NHL seasons and has gotten better each year going from 45 points, to 56 points, to 63 points over those three years. Fantasy owners take note, I predict that Benn is on the verge of a real breakout season, and will soon be a regular 75+ point centre in the NHL. Benn’s defensive game is also underrated.
Playing with these two talented players I believe Jagr will have another 50+ point season (he’s never scored less than that in his career). He’s still supremely skilled with the puck on his stick, and has outstanding hockey sense. He may have lost a step, but Jagr is still more than capable of putting points on the board. I also believe the smart two way play of Benn and Eriksson will help to cover up for the defensive mistakes Jagr can now make with his reduced foot speed.
Ray Whitney is expected to play with newly acquired centre Derek Roy, and 35 goal scorer Michael Ryder. I see another effective partnership on this line. Whitney’s puck control and passing skills will be a great benefit to Ryder, who is a natural sniper. In addition, Derek Roy should be able to adequately replace the production of Mike Ribeiro on the unit. Last season Whitney put up 77 points, and while it may be unrealistic to expect him to sustain that level of production given he scored 58 points in 2009-10, and 57 points in 2010-11, I still think he can be an effective scorer. Whitney is a solid threat to score 55-60 points. On Roy, I think the Stars fleeced the Sabres on that trade, acquiring the skilled pivot for a third line agitator (though a good one) in Steve Ott, and bottom pairing dman Adam Pardy. I think that is a very cheap price for a centre capable of playing top 6 minutes.
With Brenden Morrow, the long time Stars Captain anchoring a line that could see an influx of talented prospects, such as Scott Glennie or Cody Eakin, Dallas should also be able to put together a third line that will provide the team with extra punch.
On Defence players like Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley who are coming into their own add to the offence from the back end, and veteran Stephane Robidas leads the unit. I do however believe the Stars could add another defensive defenceman for depth (what team can’t?) but this is a minor complaint.
Kari Lehtonen has never lived up to the expectations created by his high draft position with Atlanta, but he is still an effective starting goalie, and the Stars can rely on him to win games this year. He’s had a career resurgance since being traded to the Stars, and has even stayed relatively healthy (by his standards). He provides the Stars with above average goaltending.
Now while I don’t expect Dallas to win the Stanley Cup next year, these additions should make them into a competitor for a playoff spot, even in the highly competitive Western Conference. These two forwards on short term deals also provide the Stars with time to develop their young prospects like Radek Faksa.
I must say, many are criticizing these moves, and the salaries paid to Jagr and Whitney, but they were among the best FA forwards available. These are short term deals where the risk is minimized as the only risk is short term money and cap space. In a weak UFA pool, and for a team that really couldn’t lure Zach Parise to town, taking a flyer on these guys isn’t so bad. I mean what is the alternative, saving cap space for a rainy day? Cap space is great and all, but it doesn’t help you win games, you have to use it sometime to acquire a player.
For these reasons, as well as their fantastic draft, I give the Stars two thumbs up this offseason. Good work Joe Nieuwendyk.
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