LINK TO PART 1 of INSTALLMENT 1
The signing of Hull came a day after Dallas was able to re-sign veteran center Guy Carbonneau and defenseman Craig Ludwig, both of whom were unrestricted free agents. The pair had become a stabilizing force on the evolution of the Stars in the mid-90s, with the former Canadiens spreading that Montreal winning attitude in North Texas.
|Guy Carbonneau |
Carbonneau had quietly become a cult hero among the Dallas faithful at raucous Reunion Arena since he was acquired from the Blues in Oct. 1995. The savvy center may have lost a step or two since being drafted by the Canadiens in 1979, but his professional demeanor came through loud and clear on a Stars team -- and fan base -- that was maturing with every passing year.
Ludwig joined the Minnesota North Stars in 1991 after winning two Stanley Cups in Montreal. The rugged veteran was a shot-blocking extraordinaire that used duct tape to help keep together his ever disintegrating shin pads.
But not all was well on the contract front. Restricted free agents Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored the overtime winner in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Red Wings from center ice, and offensive defenseman Darryl Sydor were both at a stalemate as far as getting a new deal done.
Langenbrunner was the top prospect in the Dallas organization when he made his debut with the Stars in April 1995. After a year of bouncing between the minors and Dallas, Langenbrunner settled permanently in Big D starting in 1996. Over the next two years he became one of the team's most dependable and reliable two-way forwards, with his tenacity and attention to detail endearing him to Hitchcock. Though the forward may not have potted as many goals as he was projected to, his development into a gritty player became instrumental on a team that was learning how to win playoff games.
Sydor, meanwhile, had steadily become one of the Stars best defensemen since being acquired from Los Angeles in Feb. 1996. The former first-round pick of the Kings paired with Sergei Zubov on the blueline, giving Dallas a potent puck-moving tandem.
A week before the team traveled to Vail, Colorado for the opening of training camp in mid-September, both Langenbrunner and Sydor had rejected contract offers. The two continued to work in Dallas, but the rest of the club headed north for the first six days of what they hoped would be the beginning of an odyssey that took them to the promised land in June.
"It's disappointing," assistant general manager Doug Armstrong said about the absence of Langenbrunner and Sydor. "I think we'll just go through this portion of training camp without negotiating. It gives everybody time to re-focus."
Around four-hour on-ice workouts, the players in Vail fished for trout, went white-water rafting, played golf and rode mountain bikes. These activities did more than give them a break from Hitchcock's barking -- they were part of a grand scheme to make the club into a more cohesive group that was preparing to go deep into the postseason.
Hitchcock also immediately began tinkering with his new goal-scoring toy until he finally settled on putting Hull on a line with Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen. Hitchcock had always worked under the mantra of hooking-up twosomes rather than threesomes when he concocted forward triumvirates. With Modano and Lehtinen already locked in, Hull slid alongside to play left wing.
"You can see tremendous chemistry there," said Hitchcock, who earlier in the month received a three-year contract extension. "I think we're just going to leave it where it is right now."Plodding Through The Preseason
The Stars got their preseason schedule off on the right foot by dominating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 5-1 win in Lakeland, Florida. Dallas got goals from Modano, Lehtinen, Zubov, Grant Marshall, and 19-year-old 1997 first-round pick Brenden Morrow
, who was returned to his WHL junior team in Portland three days later.
After a game against the St. Louis Blues, Dallas would next face-off against the expansion Nashville Predators in Little Rock, Arkansas. In a penalty and fight-filled game, the rowdiness spilled into the crowd, where the locales began throwing debris onto the ice late in the contest.
With the score knotted at 2, Hitchcock persuaded the officials to cancel the overtime because of poor fan behavior as well as deteriorating ice conditions.
The two teams met again two days later in Dallas, but minus Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher, who was suspended four games by the league for his blow to the head of Blues defenseman Chris Pronger. The end result this time around had Dallas on the winning side of a 5-1 decision, with defenseman Sergey Gusev netting a goal and assist.
Gusev was one of the beneficiaries of Sydor's elongated contract impasse. Playing alongside Zubov, Gusev had made a name for himself by accumulating five points in his first four preseason games.
As the Stars marched toward October, negotiations with Sydor and Langenbrunner became more serious. During the final week of September, Sydor was the first to come back when he inked a four-year, $10 million contract.
Meanwhile, two other veterans -- center Joe Nieuwendyk and defenseman Richard Matvichuk -- were both still on the shelf. Nieuwendyk was on the mend from a serious knee injury sustained in the Stars first-round playoff series against San Jose in April, and wasn't expected to be ready for the season-opener at home against the Buffalo Sabres. Matvichuk, originally thought to be out until mid-October, was making great strides in his recovery from minor knee surgery over the summer, and the Stars were optimistic he'd be ready in time to face the Sabres.Let The Games Begin
Just days before the regular-season opener at Reunion Arena, the Stars again anteed up and doled out a pair of contracts that would help their young core stay together for the near future.
First up was Langenbrunner, who finally signed a two-year, $1.9 million deal four days before the start of the year. Then, a day before the Sabres game, the physical captain Hatcher signed a four-year contract extension.
On Saturday, Oct. 10, Dallas began its defense of the President's Trophy with a convincing 4-1 win over Buffalo. Sydor, Modano, Lehtinen and Pat Verbeek scored in the decisive victory over a team the Stars would see again some seven months later.
"We played on edge and that's how you have to play against this team," Hitchcock said.
The trio of Modano, Lehtinen and Hull made quite a debut, combining for five points.
"We had a lot of player movement and we were working on trying to set up Brett in the slot," Modano said. "The three of us feel very comfortable working together."
|Lehtinen, Modano and Hull |
The Stars used the opening-game win to propel them to an impressive 6-1-2 mark during the month of October. The first 31 days was capped by a dramatic 3-2 win over the Red Wings on the final day at Reunion Arena.
Hull made sure Detroit felt the sting by registering his first two-goal game as a Star, scoring the winner with six minutes to go to help Dallas overcome a 2-0 deficit.
"It was Brett Hull's best game of the year," Hitchcock. "He's still adjusting to the way we do things and we have asked him to be more physical. You have to remember, this is the first time that he has played left wing full-time and that is something he is still adjusting to."
With a healthy Nieuwendyk joining the club in late October, the Stars headed into November having won five of six at home (the other game finished in an overtime tie) and atop the NHL.
"Our goal was to finish the month undefeated at home and now we go on the road to test ourselves," Hitchcock added. "I think overall we are on track, but we still have some things to work on."NEXT INSTALLMENT (OCTOBER): The Stars hit the road where Hull reaches a milestone, but the team also has to deal with a hit to a couple of key players.