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Healthy Souray starts fresh in Dallas

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

At first glance, it may have seemed like a bit of a desperation move for the Dallas Stars to sign 35-year-old defenseman Sheldon Souray to a free agent contract on July 1.

Sheldon Souray Highlights
After all, this is a guy who has struggled with injuries in the recent past and even spent last season in the AHL because the Edmonton Oilers decided they didn’t want him any more, even though they were paying him upwards of $5 million a year.

But Souray, who scored four goals and 19 points in just 40 games in exile with AHL Hershey last season, and suited up for just 37 contests the year before in Edmonton, remains highly skilled and is now fully recovered from all his ailments. He is also determined to prove he can still play in the world’s best hockey league.

“I feel great. This is probably the best I’ve felt in five years,” said the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Souray, who has played more than half a season just once over the last four years, but it was a good one, as he totaled 23 goals and 53 points for the Oilers in 2008-09. “It’s been a good summer. A lot of times, it’s not only your body, but also your mind, that needs a little time away and this summer was really good for that. I spent a lot of time just getting ready, kind of re-constructing the body, so to speak. I feel great. The game’s getting faster, guys are getting younger and you have to stay competitive with that.”

And while thoughts of Souray posting offensive numbers similar to the career-high totals of 26 goals and 64 points he amassed with Montreal back in 2006-07 may be unrealistic, the risk to the Stars is minimal. Signing Souray to a one-year deal worth $1.6 million isn’t all that much of a gamble for Dallas, but it could become a major bargain if Souray can at least re-establish himself as the physical blueliner with a booming slap shot that he’s always been when healthy throughout his 11-year NHL career.

“I sense an unbelievable amount of motivation with him,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “I had a good, long talk with him (before signing the contract) and I was impressed. I realize some people may view this as a gamble, but I believe it’s a gamble worth taking. He’s motivated, he wants to show the NHL that he can still be a top defenseman in this league, and the element that really helps us as well is that we haven’t had that point presence on the power play for a few years here, since Sergei Zubov left and really, that cannon that he has will be a good complement for what we’re trying to do on the power play.

“I think that we’re both sharing the risk here. He signed a one-year deal and that’s what we were offering and we think that the reward is a good pay-off.”

Souray agreed, although he questioned the notion that he’s motivated by proving people wrong.

“Every season, no matter what happened the season before, you want to improve upon things,” said Souray, who hasn’t participated in the NHL playoffs since 2005-06 with Montreal. “You want to get better and keep earning respect with your teammates and coaches and around the league. This year is a little different in that I’m coming to a new team, there are some question marks, but that stuff doesn’t really bother me. The pressure and the motivation comes from myself, not anybody else. That I’m getting an opportunity to play for an organization that I’ve always wanted to play for, I’ve heard nothing but good things and having the opportunity to talk to Joe early in free agency was the icing on the cake, so to speak. To get the chance to come here and prove I still have gas left in the tank and that I can be a productive player on this team is a good opportunity for me.”

As for the rough 2010-11 season, which began with Souray expressing interest in a trade, which prompted Edmonton to demote him to another team’s AHL affiliate, the native of Elk Point, Alberta simply wants to forget the whole experience.

“It was a grind, it was hard, but it was a situation that wasn’t really in my control,” said Souray, who hadn’t spent a day in the minors since his second pro season in 1997-98 when he played six games for AHL Albany before sticking for good in the NHL with New Jersey. “They were paying me and that was their prerogative to do whatever they wanted, but I feel like the situation definitely spiraled out of control a little bit. I went down (to Hershey) and everyone I had a chance to meet and play with were really good guys. I played in a good organization, and hey - whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

“I feel I still have a lot of hockey left at this level. I feel I can be a productive player here and hopefully a top player on this team, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you go out there and do it. But I’m healthy and focused and ready to go.”

For anyone who suggests that Souray was identified as such a dressing room problem that the Oilers didn’t even want him around their AHL prospects, a few former teammates enthusiastically endorsed his addition to the Stars’ roster.

“I played with Sheldon in Montreal, he was my D partner when I was there, my second year,” said Dallas blueliner Stephane Robidas, who skated alongside Souray from 1999-2002. “I think it’s a great addition. He’s a good player, he’s a really good guy, he brings a lot to the table. Last year obviously was a tough year for him and I think he wants to prove himself. I talked to him and I think he’s really excited to come back (to the NHL) and have another chance. I think he’ll be a great addition to our team.”

“I played with Shelly in Montreal for a few years and he was a big part of that team,” added right winger Michael Ryder, who also signed with Dallas as a free agent on July 1 and who played for the Canadiens from 2003-07 with Souray. “He’s a good team guy, all the guys like him, he’s pretty out-going and you can joke around with him. He was there my rookie year and took me in a little bit and he told me a few things and he helped me out. I really enjoyed him there and I don’t see him as a distraction at all. Guys go through different situations in this league and he just went through it. It was tough for him, but it’s good for him to get back in this league and good for him to show that he can play in this league.”

In addition to vouching for his character, the people who know Souray well also praised his abilities on the ice and were excited about the elements he can provide.

“He has a great shot, he brings some toughness, he’s a big guy size-wise,” said Robidas. “He brings something that we really didn’t have last year and that’s always a plus when you can add something that’s missing. Sometimes, when you build a puzzle, you don’t want all the same piece, you need different pieces, and I think he’s another piece of the puzzle and he fits right there with our team.”

“It’s definitely going to help, snipers from the blue line, you don’t have a lot of those,” added Stars center Mike Ribeiro, who played parts of six seasons in Montreal from 1999-2006. “He’s a guy that can shoot from the blue line and score. Not just his shot, but his size, too, will help. He’s a guy that can play physical and get dirty. But his shot can help us, especially on the power play. He’s a guy who can score and we’ve needed that from the blue line.”

Perhaps humbled by his year in the minors, Souray downplayed the notion that he was a lock to man the point on the power play, suggesting there were plenty of other options on the club. He acknowledged that he would have to earn that role with his performance.

“I think every guy here wants the chance to do that and we’re all starting on the same page,” said Souray, who was originally selected by New Jersey in the third round (71st overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. “We got a new coach, got a lot of new faces, lost some players. There’s going to be some healthy competition from within the room here. It’s easy to say I’ll get a chance there because I’ve had success there in the past, but I don’t know if you could look at that and rest on it, because there’s a lot of good players in here who could fill a role. It’s going to be competitive and my job is come in here and be a good soldier, lend my experience to these guys and do what I can to help out, whether it’s power play, penalty killing, playing physical, whatever. I’m here to play hard and earn the opportunity wherever I play.”

Having familiarity with some of his new teammates certainly helps the transition process for Souray, who has enjoyed getting to know the other guys.

“I’ve been in the league for quite a few years, so even though I haven’t had the opportunity to play with most of the guys, I have had the opportunity to play with four or five of them, but I know another 10 of them from playing against them,” Souray pointed out. “I think as you get older and you get more experience, it takes you back to one common denominator, and hockey’s got pretty good guys everywhere I’ve gone in my travels. It’s probably a little easier transition at this stage of my career than it was, say, going to Montreal when I was 22 or 23.

“The guys have all been really welcoming. All the guys here are real excited about the season.”

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