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Nieuwendyk makes the tough call

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

It's hard to cut ties with a player that has done so much for your team and franchise over an amazing career. It makes it doubly tough when that player is a friend and former teammate.

That's the dilemma that Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk was facing before he ultimately -- and painstakingly -- chose not to offer future Hall of Famer Mike Modano a contract extension for the upcoming season.

  Nieuwendyk Video (RAW)
"It was something that I've been talking to Mike about for quite some time," Nieuwendyk said on Tuesday. "It's a difficult decision for our fans, and it's a difficult decision for our organization. But from my standpoint, I feel it's necessary for us to move forward under these trying times. It's a tough decision, but we're going to move on without him on the ice. My primary focus is making the Dallas Stars a contender again. You're not going to replace Mike Modano, but like all great players, at some point you have to turn the page. The strength of our team is our youth, and we have some great young players that will push to the next level."

Still, Nieuwendyk, who spoke with the franchise's all-time scorer for 30 minutes on Monday night, hardly closed the book on the Mike Modano era. In fact, he spoke openly about the team's all-time best player someday returning to the club in some sort of off-ice capacity when Modano finally decides to hang up his skates.

Modano, who becomes a free agent July 1, has yet to determine his playing future.

"I'll be the first guy knocking on our new owner's door in order to have Mike part of this organization, and I don't think anybody would have an issue with that," Nieuwendyk said. "I've said to Mike repeatedly that he has to know what direction he wants to go with this. Mike has to decide which area he wants to get into, and I think we'll make a fit in whatever he wants to do. If and when he decides to stop playing, the door will always be open for him here."

It was an agonizing process over time for Nieuwendyk, and easily the hardest decision he's had to make since being named to his post a year ago. But Nieuwendyk knew it was time to move forward without Modano, the highest-scoring American-born player that, along with Nieuwendyk, formed a potent 1-2 pivot combination during the Stars' amazing three-year run in the late 90's that saw the team capture its first Stanley Cup championship, advance to the Western Conference finals three times, and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals twice.

So if Modano decides to return to the ice for his 22nd NHL season and signs with another team for another crack at the Cup, he'll have the full support of his buddy.

"I respect that, and I've indicated that to him," Nieuwendyk said. "If he wants to pursue that, much like Ray Bourque did by going to Colorado, that is certainly his prerogative. He's one of the best players I ever played with. I know what he's going through because I've been there. He's certainly capable of playing. He's a talent."

Modano becomes the second veteran to be let go by the Stars this offseason. In May, Nieuwendyk announced that goalie Marty Turco wasn't going to return to a team that now needs its youngsters to take off the training wheels and pedal full-steam ahead.

"We have young players that I believe have to be put in the position where they can be successful," Nieuwendyk said. "The depth of our team is at the center ice position. I didn't anticipate Mike's role going forward as he would have liked from a fourth-line position, and in fact, we need to incorporate a different look there as well."

Modano burst onto the season like no other player in Minnesota/Dallas history. The No. 1 overall pick in 1988, the then 18-year-old Modano evolved both as a man and hockey player on the NHL stage.

In 1991, he helped lead the North Stars to their second-ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and was an integral part in upsetting the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

In 1993, Modano was a natural to become the team's ambassador for the new hockey fans of North Texas when the North Stars migrated to Dallas.

He eventually became the most prolific U.S.-born offensive player in the NHL by scoring 557 goals and 1.359 points, and the 40-year-old leaves as the all-time franchise leader in 15 different regular season statistical categories as well as 11 postseason categories.

Modano's production, however, had been slipping over the past two seasons, and his ice-time dwindled. Last year he was able to muster just 30 points, the fewest total in a career that began in 1989 (he had 29 points in a 1994-95 season that was shortened to 48 games due to a lockout).

With Modano gone, veteran Jere Lehtinen becomes the oldest forward at 37, while captain Brenden Morrow (31) and Toby Petersen (31) are the only players north of the age of 30.

The core of the team that is looking to get back into the postseason after a two-year hiatus now includes Loui Eriksson (24), James Neal (22), Steve Ott (27), and a pair of 30-year-olds in leading scorer Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro.

"We haven't made the playoffs for two years, and we're facing challenges right now that most NHL teams are not facing," Nieuwendyk said. "I feel confident about our young players and where they are viewed as compared to the rest of the league. I think everyone would agree that we have good, young players."

Still, it was an exhausting process for Nieuwendyk, who knows full well what Modano meant to the Stars and the city of Dallas…and vice-versa. 

"From a fan's perspective it's going to be tough no matter what because Mike has been such an important part of this franchise ever since we came to Dallas. It's going to be difficult for fans to understand," he said. "Looking back, I'm sure it was very difficult for Cowboys fans to see Emmitt Smith move on. But you ask people today, and Emmitt Smith is always a Dallas Cowboy, and Mike Modano will always be a Dallas Star."

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