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Dallas Stars’ disappointment beginning to slowly move towards optimism looking forward

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars
After about a week of getting used to the fact that they won’t be participating in the 2011-12 Stanley Cup playoffs, the bitter disappointment at missing out for the fourth straight year is slowly starting to dissipate for the Dallas Stars.

Of course, with the NHL’s post-season starting up Wednesday night without them, the scab might have been pulled off the wound a bit, but as players and management begin to look forward, they can’t help but be encouraged that the future looks bright for this organization.

The Stars experienced a lot of positives this past season, and it’s a shame a lot of those pluses have been overshadowed by the big negative that saw the squad stumble to a 3-9-0 record over their final 12 games, including a five-game losing streak by a combined score of 18-6 to close the season.

But there are a lot of reasons for optimism moving forward.

“Unfortunately it didn’t happen and we’re all extremely disappointed,” Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk acknowledged. “I know to a man in our locker room, it’s a tough feeling and you have to face the music, as they will. It’s difficult because it’s a tough league, it’s a tough conference and it’s not easy to achieve your goals. We’re very determined to push forward and achieve our goals. What gets lost in a lot of the push that we’ve had here the last two months, is that there have been a lot of good things as well. And even though you don’t make the playoffs, sometimes that gets lost.

“I’m proud of the way our team competed hard, I’m proud of the way they came together as a team, which to me, is a big part of the battle. It’s always the goal early on for a group of guys to come together and to respect each other and to play hard for each other and I think we had a lot of good efforts from our group this year.”

The final standings show that the Stars finished 10th in the Western Conference with 89 points, six behind the eighth-place Kings for the last playoff spot and one back of Calgary in ninth. While that’s not quite as close as last-season’s gut-wrenching loss on the final day that kept them out, but the fact is, about a week before the final game, they were among the final eight, finally getting eliminated following a 2-0 loss to Nashville in Game 81. As much as it hurt to be right in the mix and then not make it, falling just short like that could also be a source of comfort.

“We’re two or three wins away from winning our division and being a three seed, so it’s not far off,” defenseman Alex Goligoski said, noting how Phoenix won the Pacific Division with 97 points. “And when you look at the really, really good, elite teams, they’re able to string together 10 straight games during a season and we had a couple of times during this year where we were able to do that. There are good signs, we had points during the season where we were a really good hockey club, it was just that we were maybe a little inconsistent with them.”

“It was the same situation last year, and it’s even worse this year,” added winger Loui Eriksson, who led the Stars in scoring (and finished 20th overall in the NHL) with 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) and in plus/minus at +18. “It’s too bad. We were so close, but we didn’t make it this year again. Of course, it’s disappointment, all the guys are disappointed, but there’s not much we can do about it now. You just have to go home, have a better summer and just try to get better, everyone has to do that. We know we have to do a much better job for the whole season, we can’t get in those slumps like we did this year. We have to play more consistent. I’m already excited for the next season, but it’s always tough like this.”

One of the biggest reasons for optimism heading into the off-season revolves around the impressive core of young players that have been growing into key leadership roles with the club.

There’s Eriksson, just 26 after completing his sixth NHL season and a man who has proven himself to be a consistent, productive scorer, even after his longtime centerman Brad Richards left as a free agent last summer. Then factor in third-year center Jamie Benn, who posted career-highs with 26 goals and 63 points in 71 games, as the offensive catalyst, along with 26-year-old puck-moving defenseman Goligoski and top-notch goaltending from 28-year-old Kari Lehtonen, and this looks to be a team that will be in the mix for years to come.

Add in a promising group of young up-and-coming prospects - guys like defenseman Brenden Dillon and 2009 first-round draft pick Scott Glennie, who each made their NHL debuts in the season finale, to name a few - and the arrow is definitely pointing up for this squad.

“They’re amazing,” Stars captain Brenden Morrow said of his younger teammates. “Jamie Benn’s a special player, he’s going to be for a long time. Some people may have questioned whether Loui was going to be able to keep pace without Richie feeding him the puck and he proved to everyone he can, and Kari’s healthy in the net now and he looks like a top-five goalie. I think that the youth and the young core here is pretty strong.”

“We had some good, young players take steps in their careers,” Nieuwendyk said. “We had a goalie that was written off by other teams that is taking steps to becoming an elite goaltender in this league again. There are a lot of good pieces.”
The other significant element that fosters confidence for the club’s future is the presence of new owner Tom Gaglardi. After two-plus years of the Stars’ ownership situation being stranded in limbo, Gaglardi took the helm last November and for the first time in several years, the Stars will have an opportunity to add an important component or two in free agency this summer.

“I’m sure that owner situation makes everybody more comfortable,” said Lehtonen, who registered a 32-22-4 record in 2011-12, equaling a personal high with four shutouts and setting new career-bests in goals-against average (2.33) and save percentage (.922). “The last couple of years, it was a really weird situation, you knew that we weren’t going to be able to get all the top players here. Now it’s a little different - if we find a very good player and he wants to come here, we’re able to pay them, too, which just makes it a little nicer situation and gives us more hope, I guess. That’s great, it makes Dallas a place that other people want to come here to play because they know we’re trying to get on top and make good things happen. I think that’s real nice.”

“I think it’s going to be nice to have an owner this summer,” added Benn, still just 22, who also hit personal bests this year with 37 assists, seven game-winning goals and a +15 plus/minus rating. “Our future here is bright, we have a lot of young, good players and I think you saw that in the last game of the year with a few playing there. I think we’re going up, it’ll be fun to see what we can do.”

And that excitement extends off the ice, as well, because since Gaglardi arrived on the scene, the Stars have regained a foothold in the Metroplex sports consciousness, both in terms of media coverage and fan support at the American Airlines Center.

“From Day 1 since Tom Gaglardi took over, you could feel that cloud moved away from our organization,” Nieuwendyk noted. “He’s passionate about winning, he cares about our group and we sensed that from the day he took over. You could feel it in the community, you could feel it all over the radio stations - there was a different buzz about our team and that’s really exciting, not only for the last couple of months but looking ahead to this summer and next season. There’s a different dynamic in play this summer, having that stability, having that backing. I feel like now we’re a player again, whereas maybe before, not that we ever used it as an excuse, but the playing field wasn’t really level on a number of fronts. I don’t think teams really felt there was a need to talk to the Dallas Stars because of our situation. I think that will change now.”

“We have some stability now and we know going forward, there’s no problem with ownership issues,” said Morrow. “That’s exciting, knowing that there’s a plan in place and somebody that’s pushing the buttons with the best interests of the team at hand.
Seeing the atmosphere in the American Airlines Center, those were fun games, the last 10-12 games where the crowds were there, the excitement. And knowing that when the team’s doing well, the fans are into it - that’s something to look forward to. Having an owner now that is concerned about improving his team and making a winner, it’s only going to get better for us.”

So while the present is still a bit difficult to stomach, the Stars’ future, both short-term and long-term, appears to be shaping up very nicely.

“You get over this pain of not participating in the playoffs,” said Nieuwendyk, who has yet to reach the post-season in three years as Dallas GM. “You go through the evaluation process with our team, with our players, but at some point it’s really going to shift into getting excited again and the prospects of what’s ahead. I’m proud of a lot of the things we accomplished this year. I’m really excited about moving forward.”

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