STARS MAILBAG: Hitch is back, expansion, free agency, and trading Cody Eakin?

I wanted to start today’s mailbag with a story about Ken Hitchcock, who was introduced as the Dallas Stars head coach at a press conference on Thursday.

In October 2015 I was in Traverse City covering the annual prospects tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. Hitchcock, then the St. Louis Blues coach, was watching a game between the Red Wings and Blues prospects from the upper level of the arena and sitting near a kid and his dad.

During the second period of the game the dad went to the concession stand, leaving the kid — roughly 10 or 11 — to talk to Hitchcock. The kid, who was wearing a Red Wings shirt, started telling Hitchcock about Detroit players and about how Dylan Larkin was going to be an NHL player that year.

For a good 10 minutes the kid proceeded to tell Hitchcock about the players in prospect game, including many of the St. Louis prospects. Throughout the conversation Hitchcock would ask the kid follow up questions, and they talked about the kid’s youth team.

Eventually the dad returned from the concession stand — I think with a couple slices of pizza — and informed the kid who he was talking to. The kid instantly had more questions and Hitchcock continued to discuss hockey with the father and son for the remainder of the game.

Let’s get the mailbag started…

I asked Jim Nill this question on Thursday and he said Hitchcock would be included in the conversation about players and expansion protection.

Nill will still make the final call, but Hitchcock will provide input on how the Stars approach this offseason.

Hitchcock doesn’t have power like Dave Tippet does with the Arizona Coyotes, but Nill trusts his opinions on certain players and situations he’ll be included in key decisions.

I had a good conversation with Nill after the press conference and I was given full impression he’s completely on board with the hire.

Tom Gaglardi may have pushed for Hitchcock from the beginning, but I don’t think Nill would have made the final hire if it’s something he wasn’t confident with.

Nill isn’t on the hot seat, per say, but anytime a general manager is on their second coach you start to wonder about their job security.

T.J. Oshie is an unrestricted free agent this summer, that could be a top-line solution next to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Brett Ritchie has an all-pro shot and he could consistently score 25 goals a season in the right situation as a top-six winger. He could fit well next to Jason Spezza if the Stars do sign an Oshie-type player for the top line.

Ideally I’d like to see Devin Shore as the fourth-line center this season. In today’s NHL you need four lines that can play and I think he brings a bit more to the game as a center than as a winger.

In that situation, my centers down the middle would be: Seguin, Spezza, Faksa, Shore.

The players the Stars thought they would protect before the season have changed as the season progressed.

For example, before the season I thought Stephen Johns was a lock and now it’s a question whether the Stars would protect him or not.

I have full list in mind, but I think it will change and the Stars will make a key trade or two in early June.

I have a hunch Cody Eakin will be traded, but that’s just a hunch.

Either way, Eakin won’t be exposed in the expansion draft. If he’s leaving the Stars organization its via trade.

If Eakin is traded Roussel will likely be protected. Once again we are acting on a hunch.

Either way, I think Roussel would play well under Hitchcock.

On the flip side, Roussel would be a good fit for Vegas if the Stars left him exposed in the expansion draft. He’s a personality and could be an early fan favorite for the Vegas Golden Knights. He could also work out an endorsement deal with the Paris Las Vegas casino.

I asked Hitchcock about the Stars young defenders on Thursday. He mentioned Esa Lindell, John Klingberg, and Julius Honka by name.

He didn’t mention Stephen Johns or Jamie Oleksiak.

Hitchcock also added that the Stars defense is still a mystery. It’s hard to dissect the situation with the number of defenders they used this season and the number of injuries.

There are a lot of moving parts, but it’s possible that Johns won’t be back next season whether it’s as part of a trade or via expansion.

Hitchcock may like Lindell, but that doesn’t mean the Stars won’t try and improve the defense this summer on the left side via trade or free agency.

If Karl Alzner decided to test free agency I think Dallas would be an option.

Hitchcock could definitely help Klingberg, but there is also a level responsibility on the player to take the next step in his game.

Sometimes we forget that players are also responsible for their actions. Coaches can help or hurt their ability to improve, but Klingberg becoming a true No. 1 defenseman starts with Klingberg wanting to take his game to the next level.

Hitchcock discussed this at his press conference on Thursday.

Ideally he’s looking for a pair of assistants that are tough, but can read the room and help Hitchcock figure out when to pull back.

“I don’t bring in window-washers. I bring in people that are going to challenge and keep me in line,” Hitchcock said. “They’re not assistant coaches, they’re coordinators. They can handle their own domain, and they can handle me.”

And we don’t have any names yet.

Kirk Muller would be a great assistant with the Stars, but I’m not sure why he would leave Montreal for a non-head coaching job.

I don’t think he’s an option, but if I was looking for a defensive minded assistant it would be former Vancouver Canucks and former Texas Stars assistant coach Doug Lidster.

Lidster did a really nice job with the Stars young defensemen in Texas and he’d likely still be on staff in Vancouver if the Canucks weren’t cleaning house.

I’m also going to continue to drive the Todd Nelson bandwagon (I think I’m the only one). He could be a very good associate head coach with this team.

I’m also not a fan of the coach in waiting system. That didn’t work well in St. Louis and it made it easy for the players to undermine Hitchcock and made it easy to feel like he wasn’t in charge.

Hitchcock will be the coach the following season. It’s a multi-year contract.

You have to look at it that way or this hire won’t succeed.

Tyler Seguin is an average defensive forward at best right now.

He could become a good two-way forward, but he has to make a dedication to moving his feet in the defensive zone and thinking about winning over his point totals. Either way, I think Seguin will be a much better player next season since he’ll actually have a full off-season and could re-discover that speed he lost in the achilles injury.

Give this story a read from Thursday that I wrote for WFAA.

The Val Nichushkin situation is about more than coaching and I think that often gets overlooked.

Yes, Nichushkin and Lindy Ruff didn’t see eye-to-eye, but that isn’t the only reason he went back to the KHL. There were also factors that had to be worked out with management. For example, if the Stars offered Nichushkin the contract he wanted, he’d still be playing in the NHL right now.

And maybe it’s a good thing he wasn’t around this season. Nill said that going back to the KHL would be good for his maturity and the Stars would be getting a better player back when he returns,  maybe that worked.

On another note, I think Hitchcock would actually benefit Nichushkin’s development. Especially if Hitchcock is the more refined “millennial friendly” coach he said he was at his press conference on Thursday.

Mattias Janmark is in a unique situation. He’s dealing with a genetic knee disorder and the Stars aren’t sure how he’s going to respond.

If he is back at 100 percent, Janmark could be a key two-way forward and score somewhere around 40 points next season.

However, I think a more realistic expectation is 20 to 25 points and it may take a 15 to 20 games to get back into a groove after missing a full year.

I think Ales Hemsky could be back next season, at a severely discounted contract from his $4 million salary this season. I think the Stars would like to bring Patrick Sharp back in theory, but I’m still skeptical that he’ll be ready for training camp.

I don’t like it, but I think they might end up with Ben Bishop as the starting goalie in Dallas.

(I would prefer a younger, less-injured solution.)

Don’t think there will be an overhaul, but the Stars will work on landing a veteran defenseman.

Denis Gurianov had a nice NHL debut. He had the less ice time than any other player, but he was still noticeable and he’s ready for the north-south speed of the NHL.

He’s going to go back to the AHL next season and continue to learn the finer points of the game and should be ready for a strong rookie year during the 2018-19 season.

I have a hard time believing Curt Fraser will be back next season, even with him scheduled to get an interview with Hitchcock next week.

As for a reason Stars like him?

Earlier this week Nill said Fraser is a highly-respected assistant coach and one of the better offensive minds.

There are actually decent odds that both conditional picks will improve. The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks both have a good chance of reaching the Western Conference Finals.

(Yes, I know Chicago lost Game 1 to the Nashville Predators on Thursday).

The NHL coaching change won’t impact who is coaching in Cedar Park, it’s still going to be Derek Laxdal.

Let’s discuss the Texas Stars roster after their season comes to an end this weekend and they have exit interviews.

All of the Stars prospects are done for the season in their respective leagues.

Julius Honka is in camp with the Finnish national team for World Championships. Esa Lindell could join him, but that’s likely dependent on him having his contract in Dallas worked out first.

I would expect Radek Faksa to join the Czech team at worlds, while Antoine Roussel will also likely play for the French team in Paris.

I get the feeling that Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin will not play for Team Canada. Cody Eakin could be an option for Team Canada and maybe a strong showing would boost his trade value.

You really have to go with best available in this draft.

There aren’t many players who will have an NHL impact within three years, so you rely on stocking up as many assets as possible and see which ones will click for the future.

I do think the Stars will try and grab a goalie in the middle rounds (third or fourth). It’s like buying a lottery ticket and hoping it turns into an NHL solution.

I’m sure the Stars would make a call to Will Butcher’s agent, but I don’t see much of a reason for him to sign with Dallas.

I think there are other teams that would have more opportunities for Butcher to play early on, while Dallas already has an influx of young defensemen.

I’ve covered several odd stories, but the weirdest thing I’ve ever covered was an inning-based football game when I was an intern at The Oakland Press, a daily paper in Pontiac, Michigan.

Seriously, this happened.

The Motor City Soldiers and the Wayne County Bengals, both semi-professional football teams, were playing in the first ever official football game organized by innings. Innings were kept based on offensive possessions; each half inning began when a team took the first snap from center on a drive.

It seemed the evening was going well until the ninth inning (of a scheduled 12), when a collision that ended up in the Bengals’ bench area led to players from both teams coming together to exchange blows.

Referees failed to control the incident, as several fans entered the melee that spanned from the field to the bleachers.

Here is that full story.

Taco Tuesday.

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