In the last two years the Dallas Stars have seen an ownership change, two coaching changes and one general manager replaced. It's a lot of movement for a club that hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2008.
Owner Tom Gaglardi looked to establish some franchise stability when he named Jim Nill the club's new general manager in April. Nill was a fixture in the Detroit Red Wings' front office for nearly two decades, playing a prominent role on a team that won the Stanley Cup four times during his tenure.
In one of his first moves as GM, Nill provided more stability when he named Lindy Ruff the team's new coach. Like Nill, Ruff had been a picture of consistency throughout his career, coaching the Buffalo Sabres for 15 seasons after spending a decade in Buffalo as a player.
"You look at any good team and stability is the key. That was a big part of our system in Detroit, I know in Buffalo it was the same way," Nill told NHL.com. "Tom Gaglardi has given the green light for Lindy and I to come in and put that stamp on the team. Whatever business you're in, stability is the key."
With a new brain trust in place, the Stars decided the main ingredient in finding franchise stability was … more change.
The wholesale moves started when Dallas acquired the rights to veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar from the Ottawa Senators in early June. The team signed Gonchar to a new contract three days later, and a month after that made a trade with the Boston Bruins that brought centers Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to Dallas in exchange for forward Loui Eriksson and prospects. With the acquisition of another center, Shawn Horcoff, that same day, Nill gave his team two things it desperately needed: depth at center and a quarterback on the power play.
Filling those holes was a big step. But Nill said he sees the biggest beneficiary from these moves being All-Star forward Jamie Benn, who can move to the wing after playing much of last season at center.
"I think we're going to see even more growth from Jamie Benn," Nill said. "By making these moves, this allows us to get Jamie back to his natural position. It gets him a real center to play with, a right-handed center to play with (Seguin). So I think you're going to see Jamie's game really grow."
Benn likely will have to take that step this season if the Stars hope to return to the playoffs. Ruff brought former Sabres assistant James Patrick with him to Dallas, reuniting a staff that had some success developing young players in Buffalo. That skill will be crucial, considering the Stars' 2013-14 season could be riding on their coaches' ability to groom a team that will be among the youngest in the NHL.
Benn, 24, could be entering his prime, but Seguin is 21 and much of the team's depth will be made up of young players who came in last season and established themselves on the roster, among them Alex Chiasson, Brenden Dillon and Cody Eakin. Throw in potential roster spots for defensive prospect Jamie Oleksiak and 18-year-old forward Valeri Nichushkin, the team's first pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, and this group could experience some growing pains coming out of the gate.
"I think there's no easy solution to any team becoming a good franchise," Ruff told NHL.com. "I think that takes a lot of hard work and discipline. For the most part, the good franchises are teams that have been able to grow their young players and be able to keep them. I think you've got to develop a trust in the way you want to play and a commitment from players. When you get that, it's a really powerful thing."
Franchise goaltender Kari Lehtonen will be a rock in the Dallas crease, but the team will need a drastic improvement on the blue line if it wants to take the next step. Besides Gonchar, the unit mostly is unchanged from the one that last season ranked 22nd in shots-allowed per game and 24th in goals-against per game. Ruff knows the Stars will go only as far as their defense takes them.
"It was a team the last couple of years that had been knocking on the door," he said. "Offensively they've been OK, but on the defensive side you'd like to be a little bit better."
Improving that defense will be a key to Ruff's first season in Dallas. But he may be most excited by the prospect of having a potential franchise center, Seguin. The longtime Sabres coach faced off against Seguin in several Northeast Division matchups and hopes to help him fulfill the expectations that have followed him since the Bruins selected him with the second pick of the 2010 NHL Draft.
"For me, it's going to fall on how he handles the opportunity to play center," Ruff said. "That in the short term will be an adjustment for him. I will have to be patient with him. He can change the direction of the game with some of the tools that he has. You want to see a player like that use the gifts he's been given."
STARS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
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