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Stars Count Plenty of Positives in Breakthrough Season

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

Marty Turco shaved a few weeks earlier than he’d hoped. Turco wanted to stay alive well into June and compete for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup, delaying a date with the razor to eliminate the playoff beard the goalie had been cultivating since early April.

Falling to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 meant that the facial foliage was gone by Wednesday, the last day the team would gather in Frisco before summer vacation officially commences.

“I didn’t have a razor ready to do it,’’ Turco said. “You’re never ready to stop playing. Every day it was more fun. That was the best part of it all.’’

By any measure, the season must be considered a success for the Stars.

Picked by many in the preseason to struggle to even reach the playoffs, the Stars surged into the Pacific Division lead midway through the regular season and stayed there until they were overtaken in the final month by San Jose and Anaheim.

After dropping their previous four post-season series, the Stars reached the conference finals for the first time since 2000, upsetting Anaheim and San Jose along the way.

Extending the conference finals to six games against a Detroit team considered the favorite to win the Cup gives the Stars confidence that they can be serious contenders for years to come.

“It’s about being an elite team and going after championships,’’ defenseman Philippe Boucher said. “We’ve proved we belong with the elite teams. We’ve got to push a little harder to be a championship team. Our star players are fairly young, our young guys are playing really well, we’ve got a good veteran group around them, so it’s an exciting time for the franchise.’’

There’s no shame in falling short against a team as talented as Detroit. In the salary cap era of the NHL, progress can be measured by the speed in which your young players develop while retaining a core of solid veterans.

“You look at the team we lost to,’’ co-general manager Brett Hull said. “That’s the bar and that’s where we’re trying to get to. It’s not an overnight fix and it’s not where you can snap your fingers. Before you could go out and just buy players, but you can’t do that anymore. It takes time but we’re going in the right direction.’’

The Stars received career seasons from captain Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Stephane Robidas, Niklas Hagman, Loui Eriksson, Trevor Daley and Antti Miettinen. Turco took another step in his development with an outstanding playoff push that included two victories over his nemesis, the Red Wings.

Injuries to veteran blueliners Sergei Zubov, Boucher and Mattias Norstrom opened more ice time for the development of kid defensemen Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric. At 24, Daley is the old man of the group so the Stars seem set on the blueline for quite a while.

“Our goaltending is fantastic, we have a defense corps that’s young, you look at players like Robidas and Daley who stepped up their game,’’ coach Dave Tippett said. “I’m very enthused about this group. We have a lot of great pieces in place.’’

“We’re improving,’’ Morrow said. “We made good strides this year. We’d like to be playing right now, but it makes you realize how hard it is and how hard you have to work to get back to where we were. But the core is returning. A lot of people grew this season and became better players.’’

Dallas acquired center Brad Richards in a trade-deadline deal, and in the first two rounds of the playoffs Richards was one of the Stars’ best players. The 28-year-old will be anchoring one of the team’s top two lines for years to come.

Richards admits he didn’t really feel comfortable with his new team until the playoffs began, but as the postseason wore on, his impact grew. With a training camp under his belt, Richards will be a full-fledged Star.

“It’ll be a lot easier, a lot better to be with the guys from September and the whole year,’’ Richards said. “I’m looking forward to a lot of time off, but I’m also looking forward to the next three years that I have here for sure and more opportunities to win. I wasn’t too comfortable in March. We lost some games there and we weren’t playing well. I can give a lot more to this team once I get accustomed to everything.’’

The Stars also will be better with the return to health of Zubov, versatile forward Stu Barnes, Zubov, Boucher, Fistric, and right wing Jere Lehtinen, each of whom missed some or all of the playoffs with injuries.

It seems almost sure that Mike Modano will be back for a 19th season with the franchise. Modano said that, barring something unforeseen, the NHL’s all-time leading U.S.-born scorer will return to center one of the top three lines even though he marks his 38th birthday in June.

“I told him he couldn’t quit on me yet,’’ Hull said.

“Things may change until September, but my thoughts right now are coming back and to play and to finish it out and maybe stick around until it’s time to go,’’ said Modano, who finished the regular season with 21 goals and 57 assists and added five goals and 12 points in the playoffs. “It’s a year at a time right now.’’

Hull called Modano “still one of the top five all-round players in our game.’’

Owner Tom Hicks is comfortable with the co-general manager setup of Hull and Les Jackson, a partnership that worked well during the run-up to the Richards trade.

Hull doesn’t anticipate any change in that setup.

“That’s the way we’re looking at it,’’ Hull said. “We’re committed to building a championship team for Tom Hicks and until we hear otherwise, that’s the direction we’re going.’’ 

Decisions must be made on seven unrestricted free agents: Barnes, center Toby Petersen, defenseman Mattias Norstrom, left wings Hagman and Brad Winchester, right wing  Miettinen and goaltender Johan Holmqvist.

Barnes and Norstrom could retire. The Stars could re-sign Petersen to take over Barnes’ jack-of-all-trades role, and Dallas already has seven defensemen in place to cover the possible departure of Norstrom.

Holmqvist, who came over from Tampa Bay in the Richards trade, probably won’t be re-signed. Rookie Tobias Stephan is expected to step in next season as Turco’s backup.

Hagman had a terrific regular-season run with a career-best 27 goals, but he could be out of the price range for a team that will be up against the salary cap. Miettinen is expected to move on, while Winchester could re-sign as a fourth-line winger.

Eriksson and Daley are restricted free agents who are essential parts of the Stars’ future.

The Stars need some more youngsters to take over key roles. They have high hopes for left wing Fabian Brunnstrom, the Swede they signed during the playoffs. Left wing James Neal, and right wings Konstantin Pushkarev and B.J. Crombeen could also move up to become regulars for the 2008-09 Stars.

“The way the young kids came in and showed they could play at this level even while they were just learning the NHL game bodes bright for our future,’’ Hull said. “The leadership, from Brenden and the whole group, the way they stepped up and took control of the team and led us through the playoffs was something that was missing a little bit. That take-charge attitude was great to see. You saw a lot of playoff demons cast away. This group hadn’t experienced a lot of playoff success. Now that they have it, you see a lot of people excited about the future and to go farther.’’

Adding a free-agent scorer and power-play sniper isn’t out of the question.

“You look at the way the game is played, it’s skill, it’s speed, it’s scoring, it’s doing all those things at a high tempo and pace,’’ Modano said. “At times we were able to do that, but you’re still looking at that pure goal-scorer, that guy who can change the outcome of a game with one shot. Those are few and far between. We recognize that as a team. Our game plan allowed us to play very competitively even though we were missing that.’’

Tippett and his staff are expected to receive contract extensions as a reward for the strong finish.

“He’s a guy who we believe that no matter what kind of team we can put in front of him, he’ll be able to coach ‘em,’’ Hull said.

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