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Crawford confident that with a few changes, Stars will be back in post-season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Heading into his second year as coach of the Dallas Stars, Marc Crawford feels confident that the club will be better in 2010-11 and he has some fresh new ideas to resolve some of the team’s weaknesses that led to a second straight season out of the playoffs last year. 

Crawford arrived in Dallas last season and installed a new up-tempo, aggressive offensive system that seemed to suit the squad’s talented group of forwards well, but the Stars struggled defensively at times and ended up surrendering a total of 254 goals, ranking 13th out of 15 Western Conference teams.

Some observers suggested there were players who resisted some of the changes Crawford instituted, but that explanation can only go so far.

“There is a learning curve that goes along with coming into any organization and dealing with changes that are made, and the acceptance and resistance that’s met on both sides of it,” Crawford noted. “I think we’re way further along on the acceptance part of the changes, we’re way further along on the understanding of both how we need to play, how we do play, but also understanding the personalities of the team, understanding the strengths of individuals and how they connect in the group.”

To their credit, the leaders in the dressing room dismissed any impact Crawford’s different style of play had on the season’s results, especially considering that the Stars allowed 257 goals the year before with Dave Tippett in charge.

“We had the same problem last year,” shrugged captain Brenden Morrow. “I think I read somewhere we gave up just as many goals this year as we did last year, so the system I don’t think is the problem, because if we have two different systems and we give up the same, then there’s another problem. To me, that just says that it’s an attitude or a focus thing.”

“There’s a lot of talk about systems and stuff, it can change in some way how you play, but it’s still the game of hockey,” added center Brad Richards, who led the squad in scoring with 91 points. “You’ve still got to go and execute. The style might be a little different, but it’s still hockey, and a lot of teams play all different kinds of styles. It’s up to your players to adapt to that, and it’s on us. Hockey is hockey. You go on the ice and you’ve got to execute. We didn’t get it done.”

After several months of reviewing what went wrong last season, Crawford is anxious to get back to work and correct some of the trouble spots from 2009-10.

“We gave up 254 goals last year and we know that we’ve got to knock that down,” acknowledged Crawford, who became just the 15th coach in NHL history to hit the 500-win milestone last season and currently ranks 13th with 507 career regular season victories and 11th with 1,069 games coached over 14 seasons. “We’ve got it in mind that if we’re going to make the playoffs in this league, we have to be under 220 goals, so that’s a number that we’re looking at. We don’t want to put a target on a number, but we know we have to improve significantly, and that’s a pretty good gauge on where we need to get to.”

One thing is for sure, Crawford still has the full confidence of Dallas upper management.

“I’m as committed now with Marc as I was when I hired him last summer,” General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “I think with all the ups and downs we’ve gone through, I think he has learned a lot about our players and our franchise as well. I fully expect that him and his coaching staff will be much better for it going into next season.”

There has been one significant change to the coaching staff, with the Stars adding Willie Desjardins, the successful former head coach of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, as a new assistant to fill the vacancy left when Andy Moog departed back in early May.  

Crawford was thrilled to hire one of junior hockey’s most promising hockey minds. Desjardins spent the previous eight seasons coaching Medicine Hat and also served as GM since 2005, winning WHL championships in 2003 and ‘04 and reaching the Memorial Cup Final in 2007. He also guided Team Canada to the silver medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships and was an assistant on Canada’s gold medal squad the year before.

“First of all, Willie’s a career coach,” Crawford said. “And the second thing I will say is that he’s been a head coach for so long, that with that understanding of what a head coach goes through and the sorts of decisions that a head coach has to make, I really believe that he’ll help me with a lot of decisions, because of his first-hand knowledge of all of the elements that go into those decisions.”

The entire staff, which also includes former NHL defenseman Charlie Huddy and former Stars forward Stu Barnes, recently spent about a week devising plans for next season and Crawford was very encouraged with how the group exchanged ideas.

“Charlie and Stu are excellent and I think (Desjardins) is going to help them because he sparks conversation,” Crawford said. “I think he’s very creative in his thinking and he’s bringing new ideas to us - and in a lot of ways, very simple ideas, because he’s coached at the major junior level, where simplicity is the order of the day. And I think in the short time that we’ve been together here - we had six days of meetings last week here - the chemistry of our group has been quite remarkable in a very short time. I give Willie a lot of credit for that and I think that he’s going to help us to stimulate discussion and help us to formulate better ways to do things.”

As far as improving the Stars’ defensive play with the same personnel as last year, not to mention the club’s penalty killing unit that ranked 27th in the NHL, Crawford plans to introduce a few significant changes.

“The two key areas that most of our fans will look at will be our goals against and our penalty kill and they’re both very similar and they both require a lot of the same elements to improve,” pointed out Crawford, who owns a 43-40 playoff record, which includes the 1996 Stanley Cup championship with Colorado. “First of all, I think we’ll improve them probably about 5-10 percent just with improved goaltending. That’s a really simple answer, but I really believe that with Kari Lehtonen and the combination of whoever we’re going to have as our backup, Brent Krahn or Andrew Raycroft, we’ve got great goaltending here for the Dallas Stars and I think it’s going to be a strength of ours next year where quite frankly, it wasn’t a strength of ours last year until the last 20 games of the season. 

“The second part of it is adherence to simple structure in our defensive zone. That’s going to be a focus for us this year. We still believe strongly in how we play and we think we can make an improvement in the structure by making sure we all commit to do simple things, like stopping in front of the net, by coming back into defensive positioning and by sorting things out in the defensive zone quite readily. That’s probably going to be responsible, we think, for about five percent improvement as well. 

“And then finally,” he continued, “it is trying to improve a few of our tactics in the defensive zone. Tactically on the penalty kill, we’re going to change some things. I’m not going to discuss them because we do want an element of surprise for our opponents, but tactically, we’re going to change a couple of things on our penalty kill, and maybe some subtle things in how we pressure in the defensive zone. And we think that will allow us to make an improvement as well.”

With those somewhat simple - but potentially crucial - alterations ready to be implemented at September’s training camp, Crawford is eager to get things going again and feels optimistic about the Stars’ chances this year.

“I’m very excited about where we’re going. I’m very excited about our ability to get to where we need to get to,” Crawford said. “I do think we’re closer to being the team that we need to be to be successful and become an elite team than we were when I came here. I do see progress and I am excited about moving forward, and I really feel good about where the team is right now. I think that the difference between success and the failure of not making the playoffs is so minute now, it’s in the details. We’re so much more comfortable with what the exact details are, and what we need to focus in on. We’ve got a plan, we’re going to stay with it, and we’re excited about it.”

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