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Norstrom, Barnes uncertain for next season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

From one season to the next, it’s inevitable that NHL teams will have some changeover in personnel, as some players leave as free agents or retire and new ones come in to take their places and the process of the entire unit becoming a single united force begins all over again in training camp.

While the Stars have several guys who will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, allowing them to sign with any club without Dallas receiving any compensation, two players in particular are faced with unique scenarios.

For veterans Stu Barnes and Mattias Norstrom, each of whom will be unrestricted free agents, the question is whether they will retire. Both Barnes, 37, and Norstrom, 36, indicated that they would either play in Dallas next season or not at all.

“I will never play in Sweden or anywhere else,” said Norstrom, a Swede whose family is there now. “It’s either hopefully in the NHL or not at all. So if they want me back, there would be no other team that would be higher on the list than the Stars.”

 “I don’t think so,” Barnes said when asked if he would consider going anywhere else in the NHL. “I’ve enjoyed my time here. I think for me, this is one of the best places in the league to play, no question. I think it’s a tremendous organization with great people involved, a great bunch of guys, and it’s a great place to live.”

Based on their performances this past season and especially in the 2008 playoffs, each player clearly has plenty of solid hockey left.

With Barnes, the issue is clouded by his health. His post-season ended a bit early, as he didn’t step on the ice again after getting leveled by San Jose’s Jonathan Cheechoo in overtime of Game 3 in the second round. Barnes had been enjoying an outstanding playoff, scoring two goals and three points in nine games, and the team clearly missed his contributions at both ends of the ice and calming presence in the dressing room.

“It was very difficult, frustrating, obviously, that you’re watching,” said Barnes of having to sit out as the Stars continued to advance, falling two wins shy of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. “Every player, this is the most fun time of year and you want to be involved in it as much as you can.”

Unfortunately, Barnes could not shake the concussion-like symptoms and in fact, still feels the effects of them even now. With the unpredictable nature of head injuries, it simply wasn’t a situation where he could battle through the pain the way one might with a more tangible injury. There is a pre-determined script of steps one must go through before getting cleared to play.

“It was just a matter of process as far as being able to work through the symptoms,” Barnes said. “I’d get two, three days in, and then we’d fall back a couple of days. It’s frustrating, but I think the other side of it is you have to respect the symptoms for what they were and be smart about it as well.”

At 37 and following 16 seasons of grueling NHL hockey (the last four-plus with Dallas), Barnes faces the question of whether it’s time to step away from the game or come back for another year.

Obviously, the first step for Barnes is to fully recover from his injury. If that takes longer than expected and lingers too deep into the summer, it might make his decision for him. But if, as anticipated, it resolves itself sooner rather than later, he will still have a difficult choice to make regarding his future.

“Wait and see I think is the big thing,” Barnes noted, regarding his plans. “I don’t know, I couldn’t say one way or the other right now, so just take some time away here and catch a deep breath and get healthy and go from there.”

For Norstrom, the decision of whether or not to return is more of a personal one involving his family situation. With his wife and two daughters back in Sweden, if Norstrom opts to play next year, he will have to do it apart from them, so that adds to the difficulty.

“I have to sit down with my family,” Norstrom said. “We have two girls that need a little extra attention in school, and without going into details, they need extra help. So I’ve got to sit down this summer and just make the right decision. It’s going to be hard, but I need to see the family first, sit down and talk about it before I look ahead.”

“He’s another one of those guys that time will dictate (whether he will return),” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “His family is back in Sweden, and I’m sure he’ll go back and visit with his family and see where he’s at in his career.”

On the ice in the playoffs, Norstrom was outstanding, particularly in the defensive zone on a blueline which usually featured three rookies. He led the club in plus/minus, posting a +5 rating, while also chipping in on offense, contributing two goals and five points in 18 games, the longest playoff run of his 14-year NHL career. He also logged 20:20 of ice time per game, third on the club among defensemen. 

Those were the first post-season goals of his career, with the second one as clutch as they come - an overtime winner that won Game 3 of the San Jose series and staked Dallas to an insurmountable 3-0 series lead. He also assisted on captain Brenden Morrow’s OT winner in Game 1 of that series.

“It’s always fun scoring goals, that’s what it’s all about,” Norstrom said. “I think it’s important, too - during the regular season and especially in the playoffs, you can’t just look to the same guys night-in and night-out, if you want to win as a team, if you want to win a series or win all the way. You need to get scoring from different players throughout the lineup, and I think that’s also a strength of any team that can get that.”

“Guys like that, they do so many things that go unnoticed until he scores a goal,” Tippett said. “And then everybody says, ‘Oh, Norstrom played good.’ But he was playing good before he scored the goal.”

His performance was even more impressive when you consider that he was battling through a sports hernia/abdominal strain the whole time. While the injury was severe enough to require him to take a shot before every game to deal with the pain, he will not need surgery and is expected to be fine.

“It’s actually gotten a little bit better.  I hurt it in the first series,” said Norstrom, who had advanced into the second round of the playoffs just once previously, in 2001 with Los Angeles. “It was just a small tear that will probably heal up by itself. If you look at it right now, the two teams that remain right now, guys are banged up, there are injuries you don’t really know about.”

“He’s just a wily veteran that plays good, solid hockey come playoff time,” goaltender Marty Turco said of Norstrom. “He just epitomizes what this team is all about, the hard work, going about your business regardless of what other people think or do, and he knows what he can do is so important for this team. He’s been a great cog in our wheel for us.”

While there’s no denying that both players’ considerable contributions to the club’s fortunes were valuable, there’s also no guarantee club management will have them back even if they want to return. Just as the players have to weigh multiple factors in making their choice to come back or not, there are several issues the Stars have to take into account as well.

“It’s very difficult,” Dallas co-General Manager Brett Hull said. “You’ve got what they want, you’ve got what you want, you’ve got issues with the salary cap, so even if you want to go in the direction with them, you might be out of the marketplace. That’s just something you have to wait and see, and we’ll talk here in the near future.”

For example, Norstrom earned $4.25 million last year and he would undoubtedly have to be willing to take less to return to the Stars next season, although he indicated that would be fine with him.

“As long as we win,” he smiled. “If they would like me back, I’ve been here over a year now, the way this organization is, the way they treat you as a player, the kind of players they have in the room, and even more now getting this close, I think you learn a lot as a group.” 

Another reason a team might choose to cut ties with veterans is to open up roster spots for upcoming younger players, and with the three rookies on defense (Matt Niskanen, Mark Fistric and fellow Swede Nicklas Grossman), management could determine that Norstrom’s presence might take ice time away from the still-developing trio.

But the flipside of that is that Norstrom’s guidance to the young defenders, both on the ice and in the locker room, is extremely valuable. 

“I think he’s been a great mentor for all the young guys this year,” noted Grossman, 23. “Just his presence around the locker room and off the ice, it’s easy for a young guy to look up to a guy like that. He’s a real good guy to look up to and he’s been playing real well in the playoffs.”

Likewise for Barnes, who has anchored a Dallas checking line and raised his level of play considerably in each of the last two playoffs. 

So time will tell, as each party involved will mull over their options and make the decision that best suits them some time over the upcoming summer. So when training camp finally opens in September, everyone will know where they stand.

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