Last year’s Goligoski deal had merit for Stars

Feb. 21, 2011: F James Neal Traded to Pittsburgh by Dallas with D Matt Niskanen for D Alex Goligoski.

I have been asked more than a few times recently to review the events of that day with a year of perspective in our rearview mirror and ask the question whether the Stars did the right thing. The obvious reasons are the one-year anniversary, the precarious position the Stars hold in the Western Conference playoff race and the visit Wednesday evening by Neal and Niskanen for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dallas ice at the American Airlines Center.

Before I get to breaking down the trade from our wonderful position to second-guess, let’s examine the here and now for the three players involved:

Neal, 24, already is having the best year of his career. His previous highs were as a 22-year-old in Dallas where he spent the year almost entirely on a line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson and had 27 goals and 28 assists in 78 games. But, this year, playing a ton with the league’s likely-to-be-MVP Evgeni Malkin, Neal already has eclipsed his previous highs and sits on 30 goals and 31 assists with 20 games to play. That goal total had him tied for fourth in the NHL entering play Wednesday, behind Steven Stamkos, Malkin, and Phil Kessel. Thirteen of his 30 goals have come on the power play — a number that puts him tied for second in the NHL with the man advantage, trailing Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell, who has 15. The Penguins have decided Neal is a part of their core and will pay him $30 million over the next six seasons in a contract extension.

Niskanen, 25, remains a bottom-pairing defensemen in Pittsburgh, like he was in Dallas.  He has demonstrated the ability to play higher in the lineup when others are injured and has performed at a level that seems to suggest he belongs in the NHL, something he didn’t show last season in Dallas before the trade. In sports, we often wonder about how a player is developed and what damage can be done to a psyche from continued failure if confidence falls through the floor. The trade offered him a fresh start and a new approach to the game with a winning organization where he had a clean slate with the coaching staff. Having played in more than 350 games in the NHL, he appears to be what he will be, which is a depth defensemen with some puck skills but an aversion to physical play. He will be a restricted free agent this summer in Pittsburgh.

Goligoski, 26, has jumped into the Stars mix on the blue line as a player who leads the team in ice time when he has remained healthy. His 22 minutes, 40 seconds per game puts him atop on the roster. Despite missing 11 games with injury this season, he still has played 3 minutes more on the power play than any other player on the team. Think about that number. His statistical production is modest as the Stars’ power play remains rather powerless, but the Stars wanted to acquire a piece of that puzzle in this trade to run their power play, help move the puck as a defenseman and anchor the unit for the next several years. They extended his contract last month with a four-year, $18.4 million deal.

Now, let’s go back one year and discuss what was happening.  Three things in particular are worth mentioning.

1) Brad Richards, the man who had run the Stars’ power play and offense in general since the exit of Sergei Zubov, was in the final year of his contract. Given the role Richards had with the Stars, where he often would run the power play from the point as the QB, the Stars had to make sure that they had a plan on how to compete on any level of quality if they decided either to trade Richards or if they were to lose him in the offseason via free agency (which, of course, happened).

2) The Stars’ ownership situation was in no position to do business with Richards, nor was Richards in any position to commit to the future of the Stars franchise without knowing which owner would gain control from the NHL and/or bankruptcy courts.

3) The Stars had just finished a season series with the Vancouver Canucks that was a four-game beatdown of the highest order. To review, the scores were 4-1, 7-1, 4-1 and 5-2. The games were played within a six-week period of time in which the Stars had to play one of the top teams of the league and were exposed each time because of a blue line that could not break out the puck at the NHL level with any consistency. Vancouver, as styles make fights, had just the roster to attack and expose this weakness at the highest and most humiliating level. The 20-5, total-goals beating and the way that it happened made things loud and clear for the Stars’ brass that they needed to build a defense that could handle the puck. Their blue line in some of those games consisted of Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley to do all of the puck moving, because the rest of the group wasn’t capable. Nik Grossman, Mark Fistric, Jeff Woywitka, Karlis Skrastins and Matt Niskanen are five guys who have their positives, but composure with the puck on their sticks in their own end is not one of them.

With that information and the feeling that “Richards is gone” to work with, general manager Joe Nieuwendyk had to figure something out quickly. When rebuilding a franchise, you must start with a No. 1 center, No. 1 defenseman and a No. 1 goalie. The Stars felt that they had their center in Jamie Benn on the way and their goalie in Kari Lehtonen already there. Now, they needed a top-shelf defenseman. Those, however, are very expensive if you want a proven top-pair guy. So, you must speculate. Who is not a top-pair defenseman with his squad, but would be in Dallas if you go get him?

And that is what took them to Pittsburgh. The Penguins know they can only pay so many guys and need scoring wingers around Sidney Crosby and Malkin. They already tried a puck-moving-defenseman-for-winger trade the year before when Ryan Whitney was dealt away for Chris Kunitz. And with their top trio on defense of Kris Letang, Paul Martin  and Brooks Orpik locked in, they could afford to deal the very talented Goligoski before he comes up for free agency in summer 2012.

Less than 36 hours after the final beating in Vancouver, Nieuwendyk pulled the trigger.

Did the Stars want to lose Neal? Of course not. But, they felt Eriksson and Benn were the two keepers in the three-man trio and the third would be used to acquire a major weakness on the team. Even today, you could argue that they got that decision right.

When national-media types simply look at stat lines and surmise that Neal is on career-highs while the Stars’ power play is awful, it is easy to deduce that Pittsburgh took Nieuwendyk to the cleaners. I even heard one respected voice suggesting that Matt Niskanen for Goligoski is comparable. If you believe that Nisky was going to play top minutes on this Dallas blue line in 2012 and run the power play from the point, then you are as crazy as that respected voice was when he uttered such nonsense.

There are countless benefits to playing with Malkin that must be calculated. Neal is a real talent, but don’t think for a second that he would be scoring 30 goals in 60 games just anywhere in the league. He went to the perfect scenario and actually is one of the few players who ever will find that he can leave Brad Richards’ wing and find an even better center.

Has Goligoski made the trade a win for the Stars? No, not yet, anyway. They need to give him more to work with to see it ever return to where the Stars can take teams apart on the power play. It was said a few weeks back that he is more “Sydor than Zubov.” I would concede that point, but only because Zubov is a slam-dunk Hall of Fame type in my mind. We can search for the next Zubov for a long time and not find him, let alone find him in the same organization. There would be nothing wrong with Goligoski being a Sydor type as long as he is not alone back there. He is certainly not a No. 1 defenseman who can do everything for you. But, can he be a solid No. 2 or No. 3 on a contender?  Absolutely, I feel he can. But, to find that out, the Stars still need to figure out how to reel in that No. 1 Pronger/Chara/Lidstrom/Weber type, and they don’t make very many of those.

If the Stars still had Neal but didn’t have any plans on defense for the power play or offense from the back end, I think they would be in big trouble. Credit the Stars from adding Goligoski, Philip Larsen and Sheldon Souray so now they have a blue line with Daley and Robidas that actually looks substantially more comfortable and better in getting the puck out of their own end. Perfect? Far from it, but Vancouver isn’t going to hammer them 20-5 this season.

The Penguins were a much better hockey team than Dallas before the trade, and the trade wasn’t going to change that. A trade of assets so that each team could address its weaknesses makes sense on both sides. It did not mean that Pittsburgh had all of the needs that Dallas had, nor does it mean that the Stars would get to play with Crosby or Malkin and see their stats soar. In my mind, the Stars had to pay to get a guy who can help them stay competitive in a post-Richards time period, before the new owner can bring in a few more elite pieces to get this team back to the cap and back to contending.  And to get that piece, they would have to deal a scoring winger — one it might hurt to see among the NHL scoring leaders.

Despite that, as the three key figures of this deal met again on the ice Wednesday in Dallas, I think the Stars understand that it was a brick in the wall that is still being built. I don’t think they see it as a deal they would like to take back. And for the time being, I tend to agree.

They just need to keep building this summer.