The Stars fought back from a three games to one deficit in the playoffs to force Game 7 before exiting in frustrating fashion on Vancouver ice. They battled injuries (losing almost 300 man-games) and adversity during the regular season to finish with 107 points.
But for a franchise that set the bar sky high when the Stanley Cup was paraded through downtown Dallas in 1999, there's no extra credit for coming close. That's the message being delivered by general manager Doug Armstrong and the rest of Stars' management. Three straight first-round playoff exits leave Armstrong with some tough calls both for next season and beyond.
Armstrong and owner Tom Hicks meet at the end of every season to talk about the team and the plansfor the future.
"We have a meeting (with Hicks) at the end of every year," Armstrong said. "We're going to discuss everything."
This team has been built around goaltending and defense, but the Stars need to put the puck in the net with more regularity to be a major factor in the playoffs. In Games 2 through 7, the Stars never managed more than two goals.
"It's going to take a little bit of time to digest exactly where we're at and where we need to move forward," Armstrong said. "Right now there's no real reason to rush into anything.
"We ran into a great goaltender (Roberto Luongo), but we also didn't score enough goals. You have to manufacture goals. (The Canucks) found a way to manufacture goals against a goalie that was on top of his game (Dallas' Marty Turco). We didn't. That's one area where we have to decide whether the right pieces are in place here."
Armstrong found a lot to like about certain aspects of the Stars' performance against Vancouver. Turco was spectacular, the Stars were solid defensively and they got the bonus of five of their 12 playoff goals from their checking line of Jeff Halpern, Stu Barnes and Joel Lundqvist.
But Dallas received one goal from Mike Modano, the franchise's all-time leading scorer, and got zero points from top regular-season goal-scorer Jere Lehtinen.
"Goal-scoring has been an issue," Modano said. "You always look for that second and third goals of the game. That could have been the difference."
Somehow, the Stars need to generate more offense, either through the maturation of younger players, or by importing a gunslinger of a scorer via free agency or trade. Armstrong said that while he isn't ready to tear up the team and start over, he does think a major move or two would be in order.
"We've been in the same spot three years in a row," Armstrong said. "Three years in a row, and tweaks aren't really working. We've had a core group here for a long time. We have to be respectful of the work these guys do for 82 games, but at the end of the day, we're not getting the success we hoped in the playoffs. So you have to balance out 107 points year in and year out with not playing hockey in May and find out what's the best avenue to move forward."
The Stars added some character guys to their core group last off-season, gritty players like Halpern, Matthew Barnaby and Darryl Sydor. When healthy, free agent forward Eric Lindros made an impact early, then made his presence felt in Games 6 and 7 against Vancouver.
But a trade for left wing Ladislav Nagy in mid-February didn't provide the intended infusion of offense, although Nagy did register 10 points in his final 11 regular-season games and had a goal and an assist in the playoffs.
The trading-deadline deal that brought in defenseman Mattias Norstrom gave the Stars more toughness and stability on the blue line.
And so, the team that was built to win now didn't get the job done.
"It's frustrating," Armstrong said. "I thought we had the pieces in place to make a push. It's a little bit different this year than in years past. I thought our team was in better position to go deeper than maybe the last couple of years. I think parity in the NHL has leveled out that playing field. But I still thought we had a chance to go deeper this year. We ran into a very good team."
Decisions must be made on the Stars' eight unrestricted free agents: Barnes, Nagy, Sydor, Barnaby, Lindros, Krys Barch, Patrik Stefan and Jon Klemm. Barnes, Sydor and the feisty Barch figure to be back. Lindros and Barnaby must make decisions on their hockey futures.
Dallas also has four restricted free agents: Lundqvist, Mike Ribeiro, Jussi Jokinen and Antti Miettinen.
The Stars have approximately $37 million in salary cap money already committed for next season. With the cap expected to be raised to $48 million for 2007-2008, Armstrong will have some leeway to add a scorer or two if he decides to go that route. Dallas would also appear to have a surplus of defensemen to use as trade bait for more offensive punch. "We'll assess everyone that's available, potential options via trade and stay active," Armstrong said. "We're not going to limit ourselves in any area this summer."
Overall, the Stars head into the summer break with a better taste than they did a year ago when they lacked fire in a five-game first-round exit against the Colorado Avalanche. This team showed character with the comeback against Vancouver.
Armstrong said the Stars' playoff downfall could eventually be traced to the fact that they failed to protect home ice after getting a split of the first two games in Vancouver. That flop at the AAC prolonged a disturbing trend during which the Stars lost six straight playoff games on home ice, one short of the NHL record, before snapping the streak in Game 6.
"I think the series took a turn, not in Game 7, but in Games 3 and 4 here," Armstrong said. "There's a reason those statistics bear out that down 3-1, you don't usually don't win those series. You need to play great hockey, get great breaks, and that's a lot to ask.
"We've lost too many (playoff) games at home. It's very difficult to win on the road in the NHL at any time, especially in the playoffs...and our inability to win close games. At the end of the day, you need someone to step up and score goals or push the game further along and this year we fell short in that area.
"We're in the winning business and we have to find a way to get it done."