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Durability of Lehtonen one of Stars' six questions

by Adam Kimelman

The Dallas Stars led the Pacific Division on March 30, but they ended the season with five straight losses to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

General manager Joe Nieuwendyk was active in the offseason, bringing in front-line forwards Derek Roy, Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. Will the moves pay off with a return to the postseason?

Here are six questions the Stars face entering the 2012-13 season:

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1. What did coach Glen Gulutzan learn?

In his first NHL season, Gulutzan experienced the ups and downs that come with coaching in the NHL. After eight seasons in the minor leagues, including the last two in the AHL, Gulutzan said the biggest thing for him was adjusting to the NHL schedule.

"The schedule was the biggest thing," he told "It's every second night and the travel is really grueling. Managing that schedule is something we can do a better job of. The other thing is simplicity. There's so many good coaches. No one is reinventing the wheel. It's the teams that do the little things the best every night that win. That's something we'll focus on more of, doing the little things well and having those as points of emphasis throughout the year."

Adding an experienced assistant coach in Curt Fraser could help, as could the addition of veterans Jagr and Whitney. Like any other rookie, having a season of experience under his belt only can help Gulutzan moving into this season.

2. Can Kari Lehtonen stay healthy?

Injuries always have been an issue with the goaltender, notably a pesky back issue. Last season, though, he played 59 games and set personal-bests with a 2.33 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, each of which ranked in the top 10 in the League. He missed a month with a groin injury and the Stars went 7-5-0 in his absence. Rookie backup Richard Bachman played well, but the Stars need Lehtonen to be healthy if they have any hope of returning to the postseason.

3. Are the Stars tough enough?

Steve Ott isn't the biggest forward in the League, but he has no problem jumping into the fray to stick up for a teammate. Same for Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray, who along with Ott had three of the top four penalty-minute totals on the Stars last season, and all of whom will be playing with other teams in 2012-13.

So who supplies the muscle for Dallas this season? Captain Brenden Morrow can play nasty, as can defensemen Mark Fistric and Aaron Rome. But will they be enough to keep teams from getting overly physical with the Stars' more skilled players?

4. Will the older players hold up for 82 games and the playoffs?

Jagr and Whitney have combined for 2,575 regular-season games and 283 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Both players turned 40 last season. Do they have enough left in the tank for one more big run?

Nieuwendyk certainly thinks so. He landed Whitney for precisely that reason -- the Stars were the only team offering him a two-year contract. And though Jagr appeared tired at times late last season for the Philadelphia Flyers, Nieuwendyk said he believes Jagr has enough "gas in the tank." Their ability to be prime players for 82 games will determine if the Stars will be able to extend their season.

Ray Whitney
Ray Whitney
Left Wing - DAL
GOALS: 24 | ASST: 53 | PTS: 77
SOG: 185 | +/-: 26
5. Will the power play be better?

One of the main reasons the Stars reconstructed their top lines was in hope of improving their power play, which finished 30th in the League last season at 13.5 percent.

Gulutzan said improvement will come from better and simpler play in the offensive zone.

"We didn't shoot the puck enough, we didn't attack the net enough," he said. "We scored of most of our goals off our entries, but in-zone we need to be more of a shooting and retrieving team. If anything, you're going to see us shoot more. We've got Whitney and Jaromir who can control things off the half-wall. We need to shoot more and create chances off the rebounds and tips."

Jagr is second among active players with 189 power-play goals, while Whitney was second on the Coyotes last season with 20 power-play points. With a healthy Morrow providing a net-front presence, the Stars should see their numbers improve with the man-advantage.

6. Who plays defense?

Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas likely will make up the top pairing, but beyond that, nothing is set in stone. Veterans Fistric, Rome and Trevor Daley will compete for spots with youngsters Brenden Dillon, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth.

Dillon, an undrafted free agent who had 29 points in 76 American Hockey League games last season, could be a player to keep an eye on.

"He had a real good first year last year in Texas," Stars director of player personnel Les Jackson told "I believe he's going to be around the big team this year. He's really taken a huge step forward. He's going to have a real good chance of making the big club this year."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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