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Up, Down and Around

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

This may not have been the finest season of Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco’s eight-year NHL career, but he still had some outstanding moments and is already itching to come back stronger than ever next year.

Overall, Turco’s stat line from 2008-09 looks mediocre, as he fashioned a 2.81 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage while posting three shutouts (two in shootout defeats) in a career-high 74 games played.  Both the GAA and SP numbers rank as personal lows, although Turco still finished tied for ninth in the league with 33 wins, going 33-31-10 on the year. 

But worst of all is that he missed the playoffs for the first time since assuming the job as the Stars’ number one goalie in 2002-03.

“Not being a part of it is an awful feeling,” admitted Turco, who had finally completely exorcised his playoff demons by leading the Stars to the Western Conference Finals with a fabulous performance. “You instantly think of things that I’d like to do different, saves, certain goals here or there that I’d like to have back, a period or two that could have maybe made the difference. Being in my position, it’s always bittersweet. You have such a huge determining outcome on the game and on our season and when you play as much as I did and have a failing season, it hurts. It stings.” 

Stars coach Dave Tippett noted that Turco’s performance down the stretch, when he went 5-10-3 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .896 save percentage over his final 18 games, was not quite up to his usual standards.

“I would say Marty himself would be very disappointed with his play lately,” Tippett said with about two weeks left in the regular season. “He feels like he wants to have an impact on the outcome of games and I don’t think he’s had a positive impact on the outcome of games. You look at the goals (he’s allowed), they’re goals that are, I think if you ask him, he’d like to have back.” 

“I would consider it an aberration,” said Dallas goaltending consultant Andy Moog of Turco’s performance this year. “That’s not who he is. Obviously, the previous 6-7 years are who Marty is and no one’s going to go through a career without having some bumps and this was Marty’s time for a few bumps.”

For both the Stars overall and Turco individually, the 2008-09 season seemed to have three distinct segments to it.

Things did not go well in the first portion of the season, as Turco and the Stars got off to a rough start, which was frustrating for a team coming off such a deep playoff run last spring. Instead of contending among the elite teams as most expected, the Stars languished in the Western Conference basement for much of the first two months. Turco was a big part of that, sporting a 6-10-4 record along with a 3.64 goals-against average and a .866 save percentage on Nov. 30 before he started to turn things around. 

In December, both Turco and the guys in front of him began to raise their level of play and had a very good mid-season stretch in which they climbed their way out of the Western depths and surged into playoff positioning. Turco was exceptional over a span of 32 games, going 20-10-3 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, including a stretch of 10 home games in which he was 7-3-0 with a miniscule 1.40 GAA and .947 SP.

Then the ridiculous run of injuries began in mid-February, and as the Stars started to lose ground in the post-season chase, Turco’s performance began to slip a notch as well and the Stars slid out of the playoff race. 

“At the start of the year, we started not playing well and I played the majority of games trying to get things back on track,” recounted Turco, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (124th overall) in the 1994 Entry Draft. “And then from there, we had a really good, strong middle part of the season, we just couldn’t finish it up. It’s really disappointing for Mr. Hicks and our players and coaches and certainly our fans that deserved a lot better and we don’t have any excuses, whatever anyone tries to say.” 

“The challenges for Marty came in a bit of a slow start,” Moog noted. “And it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not stopping the puck or not playing well, the challenge comes in terms of your confidence. And I think his confidence was shook early on and to his credit, he dug in and started to work hard and regained his form and regained his confidence. I think at the end of the season, there were challenges there, whether it was our inexperience or whether it was too many games for him, he had difficulties at the end of the season. But I think Marty’s true nature came out in the middle part of the season where he dug in and he worked his way into his confident level again.” 

The Stars’ fortunes seemed to mirror Turco’s throughout the course of the season because he played almost every game; when Turco played well, the team’s problems seemed to dissipate and when he struggled, the results weren’t quite as successful.

“The chicken or the egg,” acknowledged Moog, regarding which affected the other first, Turco’s play or the guys in front of him. “Well, Marty’s role on the team, he’s a problem solver. Regardless of how the team plays in front of him, with his abilities and his experience, he should be able to solve his problems. But in order to do that, he’s got to be patient, he’s got to trust himself and when those things started to come into play, he had a body language or an on-ice presence that was patience and composure. His team probably took a sigh and a deep breath and realized, ‘Hey, Marty’s got this, we’re okay,’ and they probably benefitted from that, relaxed and played their own game as well.”

With Turco in net virtually every night, watching from the bench just three times over a stretch of 67 games between Nov. 1 and Apr. 2, when a lower body injury forced him out for three contests after the Stars were already eliminated from playoff contention, there was plenty of talk about whether or not fatigue contributed to his sub-par performance down the stretch. 

“I don’t know if he got tired,” Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “I don’t like to put the blame on the goalie because that’s the easiest thing to do, when you have a year like that. I think as a team, we didn’t play really well to support him. You look at great goalies in the league, they need support from their teammates, they can’t do everything by themselves. Yes, where you don’t play good at all, they can steal a game, but over an extended period, you can’t count on your goalie to steal games every night. 

“The thing with Marty, you know he’s an elite goalie and one of the best in the league. You know that eventually, his skills and his will, he wants to win, he wants to be a difference. When you have a goalie like that, that wants to be THE guy, that shows a lot. As a player, you’re seeing that, and saying, ‘Okay, he’s going to give us a chance to win, I better be ready to play, at least try to get one or two and know he’s going to shut the door for us.’ I know as a defenseman, it’s so much easier to play in front of a guy like that.”

But while Turco, who set a franchise record by starting 32 consecutive games at one point, denied his heavy workload had anything to do with his play, team management seemed to think otherwise.

“No, this is my best physical season I’ve had in a long time, it’s as best I’ve felt,” insisted the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Turco, who ranked second to Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff in both games played (74) and minutes played (4,327) this year. “Mentally, it was a tough year to be grinding it out from mid-point or even prior to mid-season, talking about playoffs and getting points and getting on a roll - those can always be taxing on you. My job is taxing enough in itself to be worrying about other things and I tried not to. I don’t really think that any of those things were personally an excuse for not being able to push this team through enough to get to the playoffs.”

“I think the challenges playing in the Western Conference are obvious,” Moog stated. “We’re all over the map here and it may not be the game or the actual playing of the game, but just the overall traveling demands of the schedule may have had an impact on him.”

One development contributing to the Stars’ need to keep playing Turco every night was that the coaching staff never became confident enough in backup Tobias Stephan to start him more often. 

“I think, Marty, to get the best out of him, we need him to be at full capacity all the time and there was probably some times this year where he wasn’t,” Tippett said. “Tobias came into training camp, didn’t have a great camp, never really gave the coaching staff a sense that he could take the ball and run with it for any stretch of time. The way our season was going, we were looking for the consistency factor and you look to your number one guy to try to get you that and it was up and down all year.”

“I think it’s paramount,” said co-General Manager Brett Hull regarding the need to acquire a more trusted backup. “A guy that the coaching staff is comfortable with and a guy that his teammates are comfortable with and can spell Marty and give him time off and maybe even a guy with enough quality to even push Marty to split games. We have a lot of confidence in Marty as well. We’re all human, we all have down years, but I think a lot of that has to fall on (management) a little bit, too, in it’s hard to be playing 75 games a year. That’s an issue that we are going to address.”

So now Turco, who will be 34 by the time training camp starts next September, moves his focus to preparing for next year and making sure he and his teammates get off to a much better start than they did last Fall.

“There’s a tremendous amount of hope,” Turco said regarding his club’s prospects moving forward. “It starts just with the guys in the locker room that were playing and that weren’t playing. Since my tenure being the guy in the nets, it’s the first time missing the playoffs and with the guys that we have returning, the experience of the younger guys, we know we’re more than capable in that locker room to not only have a playoff team but be the best in the regular season and make a tremendous amount of noise - we’re almost built for the playoffs. All I worry about is to get back in training mode and focus on September and most importantly, not having a start like we did this year.”

After taking a little time off to relax and recharge the batteries, both mentally and physically, Turco will begin his off-season training regimen.

“Marty’s dedicated to a fitness program,” Moog said, “and I’m sure he’ll get with (strength and conditioning coach) J.J. McQueen and they’ll discuss what he needs to add or what he needs to do going forward. He’s a 34-year-old pro athlete. You continually have to make adjustments as you move through your career, as far as what is important in terms of fitness.” 

“I’m going to push as hard I can to be as good as I need to be for this team in order to not let them down again,” Turco vowed. “I’m just going to make sure over the course of the summer, mentally and physically, that anything I could do better, I will. All I’m really worried about this summer is doing what I can do to get ready for next year and start setting our eyes back on getting in the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup.” 

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