For the first time since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, the Dallas Stars will take the ice without their stud No. 1 center. That would be Brad Richards, who tallied 168 points over the last two seasons, leading all Dallas forwards in ice time per game during that span.
Among active players, Richards ranks seventh in points per game over the last two years (1.11), 20th over his career (0.93) and 13th over his career in the playoffs (0.98).
Yet Richards walked away from Dallas this summer as an unrestricted free agent, becoming the most sought-after prize in a relatively-thin market. After dozens of suitors pled their cases, Richards inked a lucrative nine-year, $60-million contract with the Rangers.
FACTS & FIGURES
Record: 42-29-11, 95 points, ninth in West
Coach: Glen Gulutzan (1st season)
Interesting fact: Finishing with 95 points last season, the Stars had the most points of any team to miss the playoffs since Colorado missed the playoffs in 2006-07 with 95 points.
And with that, a new era began in Dallas.
However, the Lone Star State isn't feeling too lonely without Richards. That's because GM Joe Nieuwendyk didn't dwell on the loss of his All-Star center and write off 2011-12 as a lost season. Instead, he was quite busy on July 1, signing a handful of players that make the Stars -- who missed the playoffs last year by a mere two points -- a deeper, tougher team.
Yes, life after Richards is going to be different. But different isn't always a bad thing.
STARS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. How will the Stars replace Brad Richards? It isn't easy to replace the team's leading scorer, who left via free agency, but Richards was not the only player on the Stars' roster last season who has a scoring touch. In Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro, Dallas still has two of its three 70-point scorers from last season and if those two can figure out a way to pick up their play without Richards, then the Stars should still be able to compete for a playoff spot.
2. Can Sheldon Souray return to his old form? In his four years since signing with Edmonton, only Souray's 53-point campaign in 2008-09 would not be considered a disappointment. Playing for less money on a one-year deal, Souray should feel less pressure in Dallas and should be able to pick up his performance.
3. Can the Stars climb out of the Pacific Division basement? Finishing last the past two seasons, it won't be easy to climb the standings after losing their top scorer. However, the Stars may improve based on the fact that, unlike last year, they won't be faced with the distraction of whether or not the team's star player would be traded.
-- Greg Picker
Richards is the biggest departure this offseason, as he leaves a significant void in the Stars' lineup. The No. 1 center led Dallas in points in each of the last two seasons, and was a scoring threat every time the Stars were on the power play. Richards quarterbacked Dallas' power play and led the League with 384 minutes and 18 seconds of power play time on ice last season.
Also gone is Jamie Langenbrunner, a player with playoff experience and two Stanley Cup rings on his resume. Though Langenbrunner has immense talent and leadership abilities, things didn't go exactly as planned for him last season, his second tenure with the Stars.
In 2010-11, Langenbrunner had just 9 goals and 32 points in 70 combined games with the Devils and Stars -- his lowest goal total for a full season in his 16-year NHL career. In addition, his combined minus-18 rating was also a career-low. Langenbrunner signed with the Blues this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Defenseman Karlis Skrastins signed a contract with Lokomotiv of the Kontinental Hockey League, and will likely finish his pro career in Russia. The 12-year NHL veteran, who recently turned 37, played in 74 games for the Stars last season, and was especially helpful on the penalty kill.
Meanwhile center Aaron Gagnon , who played only 19 games with the Stars last season, signed a one-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets. The 25-year-old tallied just 2 assists in his time with Dallas last season, but did register 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 58 games with their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars.
Right wing Michael Ryder joins the Stars, fresh off a championship season with the Boston Bruins. The 31-year-old was instrumental in Boston's championship run, tallying 17 points (8 goals, 9 assists) in 25 postseason games.
Ryder has hit the 30-goal mark twice in his seven-year NHL career, and has recorded at least 50 points four times. He'll be a top-six forward and will be a big boost on the power play.
Vernon Fiddler also joined the Stars via free agency, and adds a lot of depth to the offense. The 31-year-old is an excellent two-way player who can kill penalties and win faceoffs -- he had a 53.9 percent faceoff win percentage last season with the Coyotes.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jamie Benn, LW -- The 22-year-old forward was explosive in the latter half of 2010-11, scoring at a point-per-game pace after the All-Star break. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder will see his responsibility increase next season -- especially with the loss of Richards -- and seems poised to breakout as Dallas' next superstar.
Sheldon Souray, D -- Is the 35-year-old still an effective NHL player? That's what Souray will be trying to prove this season, after a disappointing 2010-11 where he was paid $4.5 million to play in the AHL. A healthy, motivated Souray can bring size, experience and a lethal shot to Dallas' blue line.
Alex Goligoski, D -- The future of the Stars' defense begins with Goligoski, the 25-year-old acquired from Pittsburgh at last season's trade deadline. In his 23 games with the Stars, he had 5 goals and 10 assists for 15 points. If he can build on that next season, there will be plenty for Dallas fans to get excited about.
The Stars picked up 6-foot-4 defenseman Sheldon Souray after the Oilers bought out the final year of the 35-year-old's $27 million contract. Souray was plagued with injuries last season and ended up in the AHL. When healthy, Souray is an elite defenseman with a booming shot. He will be an excellent point presence for Dallas' power play.
Another player battling back from injury is Adam Pardy, who joined the Stars this offseason after spending the first three years of his NHL career with the Flames. Pardy, 27, missed 52 games last season due to a shoulder injury -- a big loss for Calgary. The Flames were 17-8-5 when Pardy was in the lineup last season.
Right wing Radek Dvorak and center Jake Dowell also make the Stars a deeper team. Dowell led Chicago forwards with 43 blocked shots last season while Dvorak, 34, brings 1,118 games of NHL experience to the roster.
The Stars have now missed the playoffs for three straight years, which matches the longest drought in franchise history (the Minnesota North Stars missed the postseason from 1974-1976). Fans in "The Big D" are hoping that streak ends now.
Despite the loss of Richards, the Stars are still a team to look out for in the West. Nieuwendyk did a good job of addressing the team's needs in free agency by taking Richards' expected salary, and divvying it out to a handful of role players that make Dallas deeper on all fronts.
Combine the new acquisitions to a roster that already includes rising stars -- left wing Jamie Benn and defenseman Alex Goligoski -- as well as established scorers -- Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson -- and the Stars shape up to be formidable squad in 2011-12.