STATE OF THE UNION
Consistency has been a hallmark of the Dallas Stars since they moved to Texas in 1993. Seven division titles, four conference finals appearances, two Stanley Cup Final berths and the 1999 title have created a level of success that's become expected in Big D.
So when the Stars stumbled to a 36-35-11 record amid a host of injuries to their top players last season, it marked just the third time they missed the playoffs in their 15 seasons since moving from Minnesota. As expected, changes were in store.
The co-general manager experiment with Brett Hull and Les Jackson was ended, with both reassigned to other roles within the organization. Joe Nieuwendyk, the '99 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, returned to the Stars as GM after serving apprenticeships with Florida and Toronto.
Nieuwendyk took a few days to assess the Stars before making his first big move -- firing long-time coach Dave Tippett and bringing in another veteran bench boss in Marc Crawford a day later.
In announcing Crawford's hiring June 13, Nieuwendyk said, "What Marc will bring is real command at the top. The players will know who's in charge."
The former star center expanded on why he targeted the Stanley Cup-winning coach in an interview with NHL.com.
"I had a couple of choices," Nieuwendyk said. "I could have went with someone with no experience or someone with experience. I just felt that where we were at with the age of some of our group, guys like Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards being in the prime of their careers, now is the time we need to make strides. It's the reason why I wanted to go with a veteran coach.
"I think Marc has a history of getting the most out of his best players."
Nieuwendyk is betting on a different voice in the dressing room and shorter stays by their stars on the training table will get the Stars back on track rather than a radical reworking of the roster.
"I could have went with someone with no experience or someone with experience. I just felt that where we were at with the age of some of our group, guys like Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards being in the prime of their careers, now is the time we need to make strides. It's the reason why I wanted to go with a veteran coach."
-- Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, on hiring Marc Crawford as coach
But outside of losing Zubov, who signed to play for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, the gang is all returning. That includes Mike Modano, the franchise icon who committed to a 20th NHL season, and Steve Ott, one of the League's top agitators who's coming off a career-best 19-goal, 46-point season.
Add in the next wave, forwards such as leading goal scorer Loui Eriksson (36 goals), James Neal (24 goals) and Fabian Brunnstrom (17 goals, 29 points), and defensemen Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Grossman, and it's possible the Stars' 2008-09 season was an anomaly -- as long as the big guns stay healthy.
"I made the major changes on the coaching staff," Nieuwendyk said. "I think it's important I come in and learn about the players. I feel we can win with this group. Where we need to make changes we'll make them, but I don't want to come in and make sweeping changes off the get-go."
Nieuwendyk made some alterations, including signing veteran defenseman Karlis Skrastins from Florida and trading for backup goalie Alex Auld, who will be a major upgrade from Tobias Stephen behind Marty Turco.
"Marty really didn't get the chance to work on some things in his game," Crawford said. "That's one of the reasons why we brought in Alex Auld. We feel we can now give Marty those times during a season where he can work on things and stay sharp."
Now two months on the job, Nieuwendyk has embraced the challenge of keeping the Stars among the NHL's elite. He said that long-time owner Tom Hicks remains committed to the team, despite recent reported financial difficulties.
When asked if he'll have the resources to make any moves he wants to do if they present themselves, Nieuwendyk said, "I certainly hope so. The one thing I know about Mr. Hicks is he has a real strong devotion to the Dallas Stars.
"That's a fair question, probably a question I don't know (the answer) at this point. I know we'll do everything we can to make our club better."
Many draft experts pegged the Stars as a team that needed to beef up the number of quality prospects they had on the blue line and in net. Naturally, Dallas took five forwards who are known more for scoring goals than preventing them.
"They were the best guys we could get at where we were picking," Tim Bernhardt, the team's director of amateur scouting, told the Dallas Morning News. "We could have targeted a defenseman, but the draft didn't fall that way to us. I think we would rather have too many wings that are all too good rather than have a defenseman who we don't think will pan out."
Armed with their highest draft position in 13 years, the Stars took Brandon Wheat Kings forward Scott Glennie -- a bit of a surprise to many prognosticators.
Nieuwendyk is hoping for big things from the 6-foot-1, 177-pound Glennie, who is the Stars' highest draft pick since Richard Jackman was taken fifth in 1996.
Here's a look at the five players the Stars selected this June in Montreal:
Scott Glennie -- Glennie didn't expect to be taken that high, but the Stars opted for this goal scorer, who teamed with No. 5 pick Brayden Schenn and 2008 fifth-round pick Matt Calvert (Columbus) on a potent line with Brandon of the WHL. Glennie had 28 goals and 42 assists in just 55 games, and could use the extra bulk that will come with one more junior season.
Alex Chiasson -- The Stars tabbed another potential scorer in Chiasson, who at 6-4 and 187 pounds, projects as a power forward. Headed for Boston University in the fall, the Montreal native played last season with Des Moines in the USHL, where he had 17 goals and 33 assists.
Reilly Smith -- Smith is a long-term project, but the 18-year-old third-round selection has strong offensive instincts, is quick on his skates and showed he could set teammates up as well as score goals while playing for the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. He'll play next season at Miami (Ohio).
Tomas Vincour -- Continuing the theme of digging for scoring gems, Dallas went for another potential power forward in the Czech Republic native who's had two years in the WHL with the Edmonton Oil Kings. He has good hands and can play down low but his skating needs help.
Curtis McKenzie -- Another power-forward prospect, McKenzie finished his second season with Penticton of British Columbia Hockey League with 30 goals in 53 games. He'll join Smith at Miami in the fall.
There was one problem the Stars had in dealing with the debilitating injuries to their top players last season -- they couldn't turn to talented young players like Neal, Eriksson and Mark Fistric to help ease the burden, since they already were in Dallas.
One goal Dallas will have on its development side will be to get its top minor leaguers NHL-ready in case they are called up. A silver lining in their doomed 2008-09 campaign was the Stars got quick look at several hopefuls, most notably defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and forwards Tom Wandell and Raymond Sawada.
As far as any of the top prospects making the roster, it's not something Nieuwendyk is counting on, but he wouldn't mind someone stepping forward next month in training camp.
"I don't think we're targeting them to (make the roster)," Nieuwendyk said, "but if someone comes in and blows us out of the water, much like what we saw with Luke Schenn in Toronto, then we've got to take a look at them."
Here's a quick look at some of the Stars' best prospects:
Ivan Vishnevskiy -- The 2006 first-round pick might not be able to crack the big club's roster with the presence of eight NHL defensemen, but Vishnevskiy could be ready soon. With 6 goals and 13 assists in 67 games with AHL Peoria, he didn't produce as expected. Still, Vishnevskiy is creative with the puck and is a smooth skater, though a bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds.
Jamie Benn -- The Stars are loaded on the left side, so this left wing is headed for the AHL for his first pro experience this season. A 2007 fifth-round pick, Benn had a big 2008-09 season with Kelowna of the WHL as he netted a team-leading 46 goals in the regular season and 13 more in the postseason. How quickly he picks up the pro game will be the key.
Philip Larsen -- Larsen is not exactly from a hockey hotbed -- he was born in Esbjerg, Denmark -- but the skilled defenseman played in the Swedish Elite League at 17 in 2006-07, and became a regular with Frolunda two seasons later. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Larsen is not terribly big but plays with a poise beyond his years. He'll likely stay with Frolunda for another season.
Tom Wandell -- The Swedish-born center made it to Dallas for 14 games last season and he notched his first NHL goal after totaling 15 goals and 26 assists in 51 games with Timra IK of the SEL. He has great hands and is very creative with the puck. Wandell will be looked at closely and could be an injury call-up during the season.
Scott Glennie -- Glennie is the Stars' highest draft pick (No. 8) in more than a decade, and he won't need to be rushed to the NHL with young snipers James Neal, Loui Eriksson and Fabian Brunnstrom already situated in Dallas. Glennie figures to stay with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings for two more seasons.