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Stars Front Office Faces Busy Summer

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

Stars players cleared out their lockers and bid their offseason farewells at the team's practice facility in Frisco last week. A once-promising season had come to a halt far earlier than anyone in the organization envisioned.

But for the Stars front office, the work is only beginning.

The core of the team will be back. Returning big guns like Brenden Morrow and Brad Richards to health will give the Stars a major lift. Face-of-the-franchise center Mike Modano has said it's "80-20'' he'll return for a 21st season.

Co-general managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson face some tough personnel calls. They can't afford a repeat of the disastrous free-agent signing of agitator Sean Avery to a $15.5 million contract last summer. Avery's presence created dressing room discord that ended only when the Stars suspended, and then waived Avery after 23 games.

The brass must decide whether to bring back power-play quarterback Sergei Zubov and dependable left wing Jere Lehtinen, both of whom were unavailable for long stretches due to injuries last season. Each is an unrestricted free agent in the twilight of his career.

Meanwhile, there are a few needs that must be addressed through either trades or free agency.

Bringing in a top-end defenseman with the skill to skipper the power play and a veteran goalie to share the load with starter Marty Turco are high on the list of offseason tasks.

With Zubov limited to 10 games last season, Stephane Robidas had to log more minutes than he probably should have. The Stars love Robie's grit and ability to skate and pass, but he's overextended as the top man on the blueline.

"Call it No. 1 or whatever, but we need somebody who can run a power play and eat up substantial minutes,'' Hull said.

Could Zubov, who turns 39 over the summer, still handle such a workload considering his recent history of injuries? Nobody knows right now. Compounding the problem is the fact that Zubov might not decide whether he wants to make a comeback until late in the summer, and by then the top available defensemen could be off the market.

Regarding Zubov, Hull said the Stars "are hoping like heck he can come back and be a huge bonus package for us. We'll keep monitoring how he feels. Maybe it gets too bad and he can't do it but hopefully that's not the case.''

Like Zubov, Lehtinen is a former All-Star, but he's battled injuries in each of the last two seasons. The Stars would like him back, but both Lehtinen and Zubov would probably have to accept one-year contracts loaded with incentives.

"To me, Jere Lehtinen is a consummate professional, nothing but class, a guy who's won three Selkes and keeps himself in top physical condition and has all the ability in the world to continue to play…he's ingrained in this organization,'' Hull said.

The rest of the Stars' unrestricted free agents are forwards Joel Lundqvist, Mark Parrish, Brendan Morrison, Steve Begin and Landon Wilson, and defenseman Darryl Sydor.

How much of owner Tom Hicks' money will Hull and Jackson have to spend on acquisitions?

Hull indicated that the front office won't be free to push the player budget tight to a salary cap which is expected to be set at $56 million.

Dallas enters the offseason with 17 players under contract, representing payroll of around $42 million. Younger skaters have more modest contracts, which aid the bottom line.

"It's really nice to have these young kids and many of them have entry-level contracts, so if the budget is substantially lower, we have the players who we feel can fit in there,'' Hull said. "It's very doable. It's going to have to be.''

The Stars could also get a little younger. Prospects like wingers Jamie Benn and Ray Sawada and defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy will get serious looks in training camp, and the Stars drew the eighth overall draft pick, their highest since selecting fifth in 1996.

Dallas needs a bounce-back season from Turco, who struggled early, recovered during the middle part of the schedule, and then faltered down the stretch. Turco paced the league in minutes played, as much a sign of the coaching staff's lack of confidence in backup Tobias Stephan as anything else.  It's unlikely that Stephan, who played in only 10 games, will be back.

Turco, who's entering the final year of his contract, doesn't think he was worn down by the end of the season, but he will admit that "Mentally it was a tough year to be grinding it out. That's taxing on you.''

Everyone agrees that next season the Stars need a seasoned goaltender to take some of the load off Turco and possibly to push for the No. 1 job.

"I think it's paramount, a guy the coaching staff and teammates are comfortable with who can spell Marty and maybe even with enough quality to push Marty and split games,'' Hull said. "We have a lot of confidence in Marty as well. We're all human and all have down years. But a lot of that has to fall on us. It's hard to play 74 games a year. That's an issue we're going to address.''

The Stars are convinced that with a healthy lineup and a few additions, they can be serious contenders in 2009-2010.

"We're talking about what we need to do to make this team a contender again and a playoff team,'' Hull said. "Health is the first thing. We have the best owner in sports. He deserves a winning team and that's what I'm thinking about right now.''

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