For the first time since the 2000-01 season, the Dallas Stars will enter a season without both Mike Modano and Marty Turco on the roster. That, folks, is a big change since Modano and Turco were easily identified with the Stars over the past decade. But after consecutive springs out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the time for change has arrived in Dallas, where the Stars are transitioning to a younger lineup under GM Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Marc Crawford.
The 2009-10 season saw Dallas finish seven points out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference at 37-31-14. While that was a five-point improvement over 2008-09, it was still way off the mark in a conference where 100 points by Nashville was only good for the seventh seed.
"There is a learning curve that goes along with coming into any organization and dealing with changes that are made, and the acceptance and resistance that's met on both sides of it," Crawford told the team's website. "I think we're way further along on the acceptance part of the changes, we're way further along on the understanding of both how we need to play, how we do play, but also understanding the personalities of the team, understanding the strengths of individuals and how they connect in the group."
The good news in Dallas is twofold. First, the departures of Modano and Turco have not gutted a roster that still boasts strong players like Brad Richards, Brenden Morrow and Lou Eriksson. Plus, the Stars' AHL affiliate reached the Calder Cup Finals last spring, so there are some young players who could shoulder their way into positions with the big club. That being said, the season will be a challenging one for the Stars, who will need strong efforts in goal, a run of good health and inspired play to close the gap on strong Western Conference competition.
"We gave up 254 goals last year, and we know that we've got to knock that down," Crawford told John Tranchina. "We've got it in mind that if we're going to make the playoffs in this League, we have to be under 220 goals, so that's a number that we're looking at. We don't want to put a target on a number, but we know we have to improve significantly, and that's a pretty good gauge on where we need to get to."
Brad Richards is only 30 and must rank among the NHL's most underappreciated players, but he still logs lots of ice time and piles up points -- and the Stars will need him to do both this season. Last time around, Richards was Dallas' top point producer, 91, built on 24 goals and 67 assists. He is strong on the power play, evidenced by his 13 goals, and stays out of the penalty box, taking just 14 penalty minutes last season. He will center the top line this season and should have Loui Eriksson on his left side.
Eriksson, 25, was a second-round selection in 2003, and the 2010 Swedish Olympian has made steady progress in his four NHL seasons, jumping from 19 to 31 to 63 to 71 points. He scored a career-high 36 goals in 2008-09 and added 29 last season while picking up a career-best 42 assists. Like Richards, Eriksson is going to be a key piece in the Stars' emerging new identity.
Mike Ribeiro, 30, needs a bounce-back season. In 66 games last season, Ribeiro scored 19 goals and 34 assists. The Stars need him to show the form that produced in 27 goals and 56 assists in 2007-08 and 22 goals and 56 assists in 2008-09. He will likely start the season with captain Brenden Morrow on his wing. The gritty Morrow is another winger who reached 20 goals last season, netting 20 with 26 assists in a solid bounce back season after missing most of '08-09 with a knee injury. Morrow, 31, is one of those heart-and-soul guys whose contributions are recognized around the League, based on his place with Team Canada at the '10 Olympics.
An interesting name in camp for the Stars is former 50-goal scorer Jonathan Cheechoo, who was bought out by the Ottawa Senators after last season. Cheechoo, 30, scored 56 goals in 82 games with San Jose in 2005-06, but has been going downhill since, with 37, 23, 12 and 5 in his last four seasons. If Cheechoo shows he has something left in the tank, it will be quite a boost for the Stars. If not, Dallas has a couple other young wingers who could benefit from playing with Ribeiro.
James Neal, 23, is a big part of the Stars' future. The left wing was a second-round pick in 2005 and has shown a nose for the net in two NHL seasons with 24 goals as a rookie and 27 last season, when he added 28 assists. A jump into the 30-something range in goal isn't pushing the envelope too much for Neel, especially if Ribeiro is making plays like he did in 2008-09.
Another kid to watch is Jamie Benn, 21, a fifth-round pick in 2007 who enjoyed a very strong rookie season in 2009-10 with 22 goals and 19 assists on the left side.
The pesky Steve Ott is known more for his agitating ways than his goal scoring, but he contributed 22 goals and 14 assists in 73 games last season while still driving opponents to distraction as evidenced by his 153 penalty minutes.
A big question mark heading into the season is the status of respected veteran Jere Lehtinen, 37, who was mulling his future plans in the days before camp began. One of the League's strongest defensive forwards, his offensive game has diminished in recent years from a career-high 33 in 2005-06 to just 4 goals last season. He also experienced the first "minus" season of his long career last season, finishing at minus-8. For his career, Lehtinen has been a plus-176.
Fabian Brunnstrom, 25, was a much sought-after free agent a couple seasons ago and scored 17 goals and 12 assists as a rookie in 2008-09. But he tailed off badly last season with just 2 goals and 9 assists in 44 games, so the heat will be on to see if he can make it as an NHL regular.
At 33, Stephane Robidas is coming off his best offensive season, scoring 10 goals and 31 assists in 82 games. In five seasons in Dallas, Robidas has become a valuable defenseman and the top point-producer among Stars' defensemen.
Other defensemen who figure to earn plenty of minutes this season are Trevor Daley, 26, Matt Niskanen, 23, Mark Fistric, 24, and Nicklas Grossman, 25, so Dallas is assembling a strong core on defense. Veteran Karlis Skrastins, 36, joins Robidas in lending experience.
Jeff Woywitka, 27, a former first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2001, appeared in 36 games with the Stars last season after failing to catch on in St. Louis between 2005 and 2009.
The Stars' crease belongs to Kari Lehtonen, who came over from the Atlanta Thrashers in a Feb. 9 trade for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a draft pick and then signed a three-year deal with Dallas. In a dozen games after the trade Lehtonen was 6-4-0 with a 2.81 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. In 46 games in Atlanta, Lehtonen was 19-22-3 with a 3.06 GAA and .911 save percentage.
Lehtonen, 26, was the second selection in the 2002 Entry Draft and has a career mark of 100-87-17 with a 2.87 GAA and .912 save percentage. He's had problems staying healthy throughout his career, and the Stars are banking on him carrying the load in goal.
"It starts with your goaltender," Crawford said. "You need solid goaltending in this League, and if you're going to win, your goaltender has to be in the picture. I think you see a little bit more of what our organization saw in (Lehtonen). He gave our group confidence."
Lehtonen follows in the big skates of Turco and Ed Belfour, who have provided top-notch goaltending for the past decade in Dallas.
"We've had a long tradition here of having premium goaltenders," Nieuwendyk said. "Marty Turco has been a solid goaltender here for over a decade now and has done great things on and off the ice. But I just felt for the long-term success of our franchise, we needed to acquire Kari Lehtonen. I think the way he played in the last 10-12 games, his performance showed that with a good summer of training, we hope that he can be an elite goaltender once again like he was early in his career."
The battle will be for the backup job. The Stars have signed NHL veteran Andrew Raycroft, 30, and also have Brett Krahn, Calgary's first-round pick in 2000, under contract.
A dark horse is 2010 first-rounder Jack Campbell from the United States National Development Team who is slated to start the season with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires.