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Eriksson, Benn, Neal have big roles on Stars

by Adam Kimelman
When the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov were major components, while goalie Marty Turco was soaking up the excitement as a top prospect for the club.

Over the ensuing decade, those players personified what the Stars were about. But time slows for no one, and with each player having celebrated his 35th birthday, it's time for them to step aside and see if the next generation of Stars can develop into stars.

Zubov left for Russia a year ago, Lehtinen is home in Finland considering retirement, and Modano and Turco were told this summer they would not be offered new deals.

Joe Nieuwendyk -- also a part of the '99 Cup team -- is the general manager charged with making the hard decisions and helping turn around a team that has missed the playoffs two straight seasons. He says those decisions weren't easy, but were necessary.

"I think that's the direction we had to go," he told "We hadn't made the playoffs for a couple years and we certainly didn't want to get older. There's a trend to go younger. We really like the good young crop of players we have. I'm really encouraged, having gone through the second year of development camp, keeping an eye on prospects we have coming, like Scott Glennie, Tomas Vincour, Philip Larson … I think there's clearly a push from our youth right now."

Among the current group, the Stars are led by a strong young forward crew headed by forwards Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn.

Eriksson, at 25 the elder statesman of three, was one goal shy of his second straight 30-goal season. His 29 was a dip from his 36 of the previous season, but his 71 points were a personal best and second on the team to Brad Richards.

Neal, who resigned with Dallas right before the beginning of training camp, is a blossoming star entering his third NHL season.  He already has two 20-goal seasons under his belt, including 27 last season.

Benn may be the biggest surprise building block of the group. A 2007 fifth-round pick, it was expected he'd spend the 2009-10 season with the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Texas Stars. Instead, Benn won an NHL job in training camp and had 22 goals and 41 points while playing all 82 games.

The biggest growth he showed, however, might have come after the Stars' season ended. To help the AHL Stars' playoff run, Benn was sent to the minors. Playing a top-line role, he led all AHL scorers with 14 goals and was third in the league with 26 points in 24 games as the Stars advanced to the Calder Cup finals.

Arriving in the minors after his NHL success, and then excelling the way he did, meant that other teams were playing their top checking lines and defense pairings against Benn. It was just what the Stars wanted to see, and the way Benn delivered was the reaction they were aiming for.

"It couldn't have worked out any better," Nieuwendyk said. "He was a marked man each night. He's going to find that now each night in the National Hockey League. He understands it gets harder now. Some kids that have early success don't have the maturity of a Jamie Benn and realize it's only going to get harder."

The fine line Nieuwendyk and coach Marc Crawford know they have to walk, however, is keeping the expectations in line with where a 21-year-old entering his second season of professional hockey should be.

"You do have to be somewhat careful," Crawford told "But at the same time, one of the reasons we played him in the American league was to give him an idea of what it's like to have total attention placed on you by a whole team. Guys come in as rookies, feel them out and the more they become known entities the more checking they see.

"Going four rounds and being the focal point of the Texas Stars, that's a great thing for him because he's got the experience of being double-teamed and checked, and now that role comes his way because he's a pretty good player. We want him to keep taking steps forward and he will, but he's going to have more responsibility."

Expect Eriksson also to have more responsibility placed on him this season. His linemate, Richards, told he sees Eriksson as ready to take on a leadership role.

"Loui Eriksson is one of the more underrated players in the League," Richards said. "He can do a lot of good things. Now he can take a bigger leadership role for us. He's got a better grasp of the language now."

"He reminds me of a guy I played with, Jere Lehtinen," Nieuwendyk said. "You know the consistency is going to be there every day. He's a heck of a player, not afraid to go to the tough areas to score goals -- that's where he gets his goals. The leadership, he's starting to evolve into that. With those (veteran) guys not there, he can take a bigger chunk of that."

Where Eriksson is a more mature player, Nieuwendyk hopes Neal can grow as well. He was suspended two games last November for a hard hit to Columbus' Jared Boll along the wall, and escaped suspension for a similarly hard hit to Phoenix's Petr Prucha in March that saw the Coyotes forward leave the ice on a stretcher.
"I truly believe that we are a better team now than we were a year ago. I really believe that. Things are starting to move in the right direction for me." -- Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk

"James, there's no question the raw attributes are there," Nieuwendyk said. "I fully expect we'll see him on the rise the next few years. There's some issues that we've discussed, him and I, as far as consistency and maturity in his overall game that he recognizes and has to move forward with. He had a real good summer training with Gary Roberts, probably worked harder than he has in his career. He's going to be an important guy, for sure."

Defensively, Matt Niskanen, Mark Fistric and Nicklas Grossman are the future currently playing big roles with the team. To further shape them and the rest of the young core in place, Nieuwendyk said he's counting on veterans like Richards, Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott, Karlis Skrastins and Stephane Robidas to take on mentor roles.

"That has to happen. It's a must," Richards said. "We are the oldest guys on the team now. … It was a lot easier when you were younger. You let the older guys deal with the behind-the-scenes issues that go on in the locker room, that the coach and the manager don't have to know about. Your leadership group has to take care of those things. Every team I've played on that's had success has had to make that happen."

Nieuwendyk said he's happy with the blend of youth and experience he has on the roster.

"I truly believe that we are a better team now than we were a year ago. I really believe that," he said. "Things are starting to move in the right direction for me."

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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