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Stars have something to prove in 2009-10

by Eric Stephens /
An uncommon sight took place within the offices of the Dallas Stars last April.

Playoff tickets weren't printed for the first time in seven years. It was an unsettling feeling for an organization used to taking its annual shot at winning the Stanley Cup, especially coming a year after the Stars advanced to the Western Conference Finals.

A slew of injuries, particularly to their top players, eventually saddled the Stars with their lowest point total (83) since the 1995-96 season, and owner Tom Hicks didn't sit idly during the summer. Hicks ended the co-general manager experiment with Brett Hull and Les Jackson and installed Joe Nieuwendyk as the new GM.

Nieuwendyk, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stars' 1999 Cup champion, surveyed the landscape and determined the biggest change wouldn't be in the dressing room, but behind the bench. Out went Dave Tippett. In came Marc Crawford.

"Obviously, we've made a few changes and that makes it difficult," Nieuwendyk told "You've got to let good people go. But sometimes you've got to do what you feel is needed."

The thinking is the Stars still have enough talent to win, but may have hit a plateau under the respected Tippett. So they turned to the fiery Crawford, a Stanley Cup winner with Colorado in 1996, to bring an edge and nudge players out of their comfort zone.

In turn, Crawford is looking to show his failed two-year stint in Los Angeles was an aberration.

"The Stars have been a terrific team for a lot of years, almost since Day 1," Crawford said. "They have a great structure, a great core group and they slipped last year. I think the most important thing is the players want to prove they're still a very good team in the NHL. I want to show that I'm a good coach. We're all part of bringing the Stars back to the elite status."

Crawford is expected to inject more offense into the Stars, who built a well-deserved reputation for their attention to defense. The most noticeable difference could be on the blue line, where young puck-movers Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Grossman figure to be activated more in the offensive zone.

The Stars said goodbye to quiet, oft-injured star Sergei Zubov and let veteran forwards Mark Parrish, Brendan Morrison and Steve Begin leave. Most of the main cast is back, including franchise icon Mike Modano for a 20th NHL season.

Two big questions will be raised when their season opens Oct. 3 against Nashville: Will the Stars stay healthy? How will they react to Crawford?

"I think everyone is curious to see how we'll play," goalie Marty Turco told the Dallas Morning News. "This is a completely different coaching staff with a different view of the game."

The Stars were hit with a vicious body blow in November when captain Brenden Morrow was lost for the season because of a torn ACL.

The haymaker followed when playmaking center Brad Richards suffered a broken bone in his right wrist and then broke his left hand in his first game back. And there were many other jabs, err, injuries that had Dallas on the ropes all season.

"Sean Avery didn't work out and became a disruption for the entire team," Nieuwendyk said. "The things that followed … it was just a real tough year all the way around."

In all, Morrow missed the final 64 games. Two-way forward Jere Lehtinen missed 34 games. Richards was out for 26. Super pest Steve Ott was lost for another 18.

The Stars believe they can't be besieged by the injury bug as much as they were in 2008-09. If they stay healthy and the stars return the form, they feel they are a playoff team.

Morrow, their heart and soul, always is tenacious and capable of 30 goals. Leading scorer Mike Ribeiro (22 goals, 56 assists) and Richards are a strong one-two punch up the middle. Lehtinen can still chip in 20-plus goals, but has battled injuries the last two seasons. Ott (19-27-46) is coming off a career season, showing he can do more than antagonize the opposition.

Those veterans are supported by talented young scorers Loui Eriksson (career-best 36 goals), James Neal (24 goals) and Fabian Brunnstrom, who has yet to tap his vast potential.

Modano has settled nicely into a supporting role as a checker who can show flashes of his high-octane past. Brian Sutherby acquitted himself well after coming over from Anaheim. Toby Petersen is back to provide energy, while Krys Barch again will handle the rough stuff and drop the gloves.

But there are job openings in training camp. Skilled Jamie Benn or gritty Ray Sawada could win a job on the fourth line. Scott Glennie, the eighth selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, also will compete but figures to head back to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.

Outside of veteran Stephane Robidas, the Stars hope their youngsters will take another step forward on a unit that lacks a true No. 1 defender.

Daley, Niskanen and Grossman all are 25 or younger and display potential that wasn't fully realized under Tippett. New assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who spent 18 seasons on NHL blue lines and was a key part of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, will be in charge of bringing the trio along.

"I talked to Charlie at length about pushing the envelope with our defense and getting them more involved offensively," Nieuwendyk said.

Ironically, the defensive-minded Stars allowed 257 goals, which tied Colorado for the worst mark in the Western Conference. Having Zubov for only 10 games because of a bad hip certainly hurt and now he's back in his native Russia to likely finish off his fine career.

Dallas did address the back end by signing free agents Karlis Skrastins and Jeff Woywitka. Skrastins can block shots and eat some minutes while Woywitka, a 2001 first-round draft pick, is starting to come into his own.

Holdover Mark Fistric is a big body while top prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy, a 2006 first-rounder, is a talented puck-mover that will be given every opportunity to win a roster spot. And there is Robidas, who at 32 is coming off two strong seasons and now is the new anchor on the blue line.

The prevailing question is whether that's enough for the Stars to compete in their zone, especially with Crawford wanting to open things up.


"I think the most important thing is the players want to prove they're still a very good team in the NHL. I want to show that I'm a good coach. We're all part of bringing the Stars back to the elite status."
-- Marc Crawford

Turco has had his highs and lows in the playoffs, but the veteran has reflected the consistency the Stars have shown over the years. Until last season, that is.

The 34-year-old netminder had his worst season as a pro, posting a 2.81 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. Some of that could have been due to being worn down from playing in 74 games.

Veteran Alex Auld was brought in to give Turco more rest during the season. Auld doesn't figure to play 43 games like he did in Ottawa last season, but you can expect that he'll see more than the 10 that Tobias Stephan played in last season.

"Marty really didn't get the chance to work on some things in his game," Crawford told in August. "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."
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