The Dallas Stars
came within two victories of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since losing to New Jersey eight years earlier. They hope an increased reliance on younger players will be enough to help them take the next step.
A slow start last season cost GM Doug Armstrong his job. New co-GMs Brett Hull
and Les Jackson watched their team sort things out, and then made a big move at the deadline by landing center Brad Richards
from Tampa Bay. Richards didn't do much during the regular season, but he did put up 15 points in 18 postseason games.
Richards is part of a new nucleus in Dallas -- a group of players in their late 20s who are at a stage in their careers where they should be peaking. That group also includes captain Brenden Morrow
, team scoring leader Mike Ribeiro
and newcomer Sean Avery
, who brings speed, skill and a huge dose of annoyance from the New York Rangers
. Youngsters like Matt Niskanen
, Nicklas Grossman
, Loui Eriksson
and Swedish free agent Fabian Brunnstrom
are also going to be expected to contribute more.
With the abundance of 20-somethings in key roles, the Stars no longer have to count on 38-year-olds Mike Modano
and Sergei Zubov
, both of whom figure to play useful, but diminished, roles. Zubov missed the second half of the season due to injury after getting off to a superb start, but the Stars managed quite well in his absence.
"We learned a lot last season," Jackson said. "We need to use that knowledge to get better."
One over-30 player who will be relied on is goaltender Marty Turco
, who's proved himself to be one of the NHL's best. With no proven backup, the 33-year-old will have to carry the load.
The Stars' performance last spring was enough to earn coach Dave Tippett a new contract that runs through 2010-11.
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(5th West/8th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07
(8th West/14th NHL)
(3rd West/4th NHL)
"Dave has proven to be a great leader on the Stars bench and we are pleased to have him under contract for the next three seasons," Hull said.
Turco has shed the rap of a goaltender who excels in the regular season but struggles in the playoffs with his work during the past two springs. He led the Stars to their best postseason since 2000 with a 2.08 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in beating Anaheim and San Jose before coming up short against Detroit.
Turco's regular season wasn't too shabby, either -- he went 32-21-6 with a 2.32 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and three shutouts. He's been one of the NHL's most dependable netminders over the last five seasons and enters the new season as the franchise career leader in victories (207) and shutouts (33).
Turco is one of the NHL's best stickhandling goaltenders, a key reason that the Stars have been in the top six in GAA in each of the last five seasons and are annually among the League leaders in fewest shots allowed.
Turco had better play up to his form of the past few seasons, because the cupboard is pretty bare behind him. Rookie Tobias Stephan, a 24-year-old from Switzerland, will get the first shot at the backup job. Stephan impressed in a one-game tryout last season but has yet to show he can hold down a full-time NHL job.
"With Marty, we're not in dire need of a goaltender," said Scott White, a professional scout and director of hockey operations for the Stars' former AHL affiliate in Iowa. "He's a top-flight goalie who can play 60 or 70 games. Stephan has had a couple of solid seasons in the AHL, and he did a good job in his one game with us. We think he may be ready to step up to the next level."
The Stars were ninth in the NHL, but second in the Western Conference with an average of 2.89 goals per game. Much of the damage was done by the duo of Ribeiro and Morrow, who finished 1-2 in scoring. Ribeiro had a career year with 27 goals and 83 points. Many of his 56 assists came on feeds to Morrow, who had a career-best 32 goals and 74 points while becoming one of the NHL's top power forwards and best-regarded leaders. A full, healthy season from former Selke winner Jere Lehtinen (15-22-37 in 48 games) would also help.
Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy with Tampa Bay in 2004, got off to a spectacular start with five assists in his first game with Dallas. He had only six points in the remaining 11 games, but was a productive second-line center in the postseason and should be more comfortable starting the season in Dallas.
One of his linemates could be Avery, whose bombastic conduct sometimes overshadows the fact that he has the talent to see regular time as a top-six forward. He had 15 goals and 33 points in 57 games during an injury-plagued season with the Rangers, then was among New York's most effective forwards in the playoffs until he was sidelined with a spleen injury. Avery brings some flash and dash to a franchise that's been mostly business since moving from Minnesota 15 years ago.
"His ability to play the game with skill and tenacity makes us a better team and is a great complement to the players we have here," said Hull, who played with Avery when the two were with Detroit. "His skill keeps improving every year. He is feisty and tenacious. Sean has the ability to score and make plays and he is fearless. I think he's a very good complement to Brenden Morrow. We like our team, but the thing I think we were lacking was a little bit of sandpaper and some grit, and we also improved our skill level with Sean."
The Stars lost 27-goal scorer Niklas Hagman to Toronto, but hope that Brunnstrom, a late bloomer who signed with Dallas as a free agent, may be able to pick up some of the load. They also think Eriksson (14 goals) is ready for more responsibility.
Modano has accepted a diminished role as a third-line center and special-teams player. Steve Ott is a tough, pesky checker who continues to blossom, and the Stars could have openings for newcomers James Neal and Ray Sawada, who are almost ready for NHL employment.
The Stars' top-seven defensemen are as good a group as any in the NHL. They generate offense from the blue line while teaming with the forwards to keep opposing shooters from getting many clean chances at Turco.
Zubov lets his play do his talking for him, and even at 38, he's among the best defensemen in the NHL. He may get less ice time this season, but he's still an excellent puck-mover and power-play quarterback who had 35 points despite missing 36 games with an assortment of injuries.
Philippe Boucher, now 35, missed 44 games and almost all of the playoffs with injuries, a big reason why he scored only two goals after getting 19 the previous season. But the Stars got a huge lift from Stephane Robidas, who had nine regular-season goals and three more in the playoffs, when he averaged 25:31 of ice time and more than picked up the slack -- despite playing for most of that time with a full cage mask that safeguarded a broken nose.
"He's one of the best teammates you're ever going to find," Tippett said. "He will go right through a wall to help the team win; he'll take pucks in the face to help the team win; he'll stuff cotton up his nose to make sure he's back to help on the power play five minutes after that. He's the epitome of what's great about our game."
Trevor Daley and youngsters Niskanen, Grossman and Mark Fistric give the Stars a blend of size, strength and skill to fill out the blue line. Niskanen (7-19-26, plus-22) came out of nowhere to give the Stars a boost and helped pick up the slack when Zubov and Boucher went down.
Three reasons for optimism
* The Stars have a number of players, led by Morrow and Ribeiro, who are in the prime of their careers, plus a bunch of youngsters who are almost ready to contribute. They've gone from an old team to one in which the key players are under 30.
* If Zubov and Boucher can stay healthy, the Stars have one of the deepest, most versatile groups of defensemen in the NHL. The forwards and defense do a superb job of making sure Turco rarely faces an opposition bombardment.
* The Stars really have no weaknesses. They've succeeded in remaining among the NHL's upper echelon because they're pretty good at everything. They were in the top 10 in offense, defense and penalty killing last season, and were 13th on the power play.
Contact John Kreiser at email@example.com