In a traditional offseason this would be a non-issue.
Cody Eakin’s three-goal, 12-point season would be a frustrating result the Dallas Stars would work in-house to remedy. The simple solution would be moving Eakin down in the lineup, putting him in a better role, and maybe with a fresh start under Ken Hitchcock -- and without an injury on the very first day of training camp -- he’d look like a 40-point scorer and reliable defensive center once again.
While that would have been the ideal situation, Cody Eakin’s future is now a somewhat, even if minor, franchise-altering decision for the Stars with the NHL Expansion draft on June 21.
The Stars can only protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie in the expansion draft. Dallas has to protect Jason Spezza and Jamie Benn since both players have no-movement clauses, while Tyler Seguin and Radek Faksa are both locks to be protected as well.
Dallas is also going to protect Valeri Nichushkin, who may or may not return from the KHL this summer, and is likely going to protect 23-year-old right winger Brett Ritchie.
That leaves the final protection spot open for Eakin or Antoine Roussel.
Before this season, it would have been a lock to keep Eakin. Eakin plays the more valuable position and Dallas recently gave him a four-year contract extension.
But Roussel has played above expectations and has turned into a spark plug for Dallas. He’s also become a fan favorite, and has reached a level of peskiness where he’s hated by opponents but you love to have him on your team.
At the same time, Eakin’s value in the middle of the Stars’ lineup has taken a hit. Right out of the gate Hitchcock said he wants Seguin to be a No. 1 center and it was clear this past season that Spezza is a better fit in the middle than his often-deployed usage as a right wing.
On top of that Faksa is turning into one of the better defensive centers in the NHL, meaning Eakin’s role in the lineup could be diminished to the fourth line. And with his past production, it makes more sense to give that job to Adam Cracknell -- who shockingly scored as many goals in one game as Eakin scored all season -- or a younger player like Jason Dickinson.
And this is where Stars general manager Jim Nill has an opportunity make the most of the situation. Nill has said multiple times that early June is going to be an exciting time for player movement, and during that stretch he could find a way to flip Eakin for other assets and hold that final protection spot for Roussel.
While he had a down season, other teams still had interest in Eakin. Teams look at the 26-year-old as a low-risk, buy-low opportunity to grab a two-way center, and his cap hit at $3.85 million per season is actually rather reasonable if a team plans to use him as a top-six center.
After signing Ben Bishop, the Stars offseason wish list still includes a top-six right winger and a reliable left-handed defenseman. Eakin could be part of a deal to fill an immediate need, or the Stars could flip Eakin for a picks or prospects -- and Dallas is at a time where the prospect pool could definitely use some enhancements.
In the end, the Stars could leave Eakin exposed in the expansion draft, but that’s unlikely. If the Stars are moving the center it’s likely via trade and that could happen sooner than later.
Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter @SeanShapiro
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