A year ago, the Dallas Stars were hoping that new general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, and a new head coach, Marc Crawford, would lead them out of the unfamiliar territory of missing the playoffs. It didn't happen, and if you're a blogger at SB Nation, you apparently don't think the Stars are going to make it happen this year, either.
No, while the Stars may be ranked 13th in our preseason NHL Power Rankings, it's not like making the playoffs would be a total shocker in Dallas, would it?
Well, up front, they have the tools to get the job done. A top line of Brendan Morrow, Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson can make things happen, while several nice players -- including Mike Ribiero and sophomore Jamie Benn -- fill in the rest of the forward ranks.
The problems are really on defense, where they return basically the same unit as a year ago. We'll let Defending Big D explain.
This dead horse had all the flesh scavenged from it months ago and the flies aren't even hanging around anymore, but as long as the Stars are returning the exact same personnel grouping here it remains a perfectly valid concern. Defense was once a hallmark of Stars hockey with names like Hatcher, Matvichuck, Ludwig, and Zubov, continued with the likes of Boucher, Norstrum, and the many returns of Darryl Sydor, but with the departure of these veteran anchors, Stephane Robidas is left to captain the lowest paid blue line in the Western Conference.
And that's the situation. In goal, the Stars have a slight question mark in Kari Lehtonen, and that's where we kick off our Five Burning Questions about the team as we preview the 2010-11 NHL season.
1. Can Kari Lehtonen stay healthy enough to help this team?
Defending Big D: In five season as the Thrashers starting goaltender, the big Finn only amassed 200 starts. Two groin injuries, an ankle problem, and a string of back issues have plagued him from day one in the NHL. A year away from the game and two back surgeries later, the former #2 overall pick says he's as healthy as he's ever been and ready to go.
Lehtonen made 12 starts for Dallas last year down the stretch, slowly getting himself back into game shape and suffering from fatigue. His first three games were not very memorable but the final 9 saw him go 6-3 with a GAA average of 2.44 and a save percentage of .926. The team responded well to a change in style (a departure from the active stick of Marty Turco) down the stretch and it was some of their most consistent hockey of the year.
Lehtonen has spent much of the summer in Dallas training with goal tending coach Mike Valley. They say a strict program over the break have him in the best shape he's been in, breaking some of the bad habits we heard about in Atlanta, and Lehtonen says his back issues are completely behind him.
Only time will tell if he can truly stay on the ice, but Stars fans hope he can, because the alternatives (journeyman Andrew Raycroft and career AHLer Brent Krahn) are not attractive options.
2. Will Brad Richards sign an extension in Dallas, or will the team be forced to move him at the deadline to avoid losing him for nothing?
DBD: This question was posed to both sides of this negotiation as early as April, immediately following the end of the season. Richards and Nieuwendyk were mum on the subject then and they remain so to this day, pending the sale of the team. It seems that Richards is open to talking to Dallas and that he likes it here.
Richards has played 2 seasons and change in Texas, having been traded here in February of 2008 just prior to the teams trip to the Western Conference Finals against Detroit. His first full season in Dallas the year after was injury plagued as he broke his right wrist, battled to return after a 15 game absence, and then broke his left hand in his first game back. Despite having been here for parts of two years, last season was his first truly full, healthy season in a Stars uniform and he responded with 91 points.
Marc Crawfords up-tempo system suits Richards more than Dave Tippett's careful defensive scheme, so that's a plus for the Stars. Richards could decide to stay if he believes the new ownership group is committed to putting a winning team on the ice (and spending some $$$).
The longer the sale of the team drags on, the longer it will take for this process to start as both parties are content to wait and see.
3. Did the Stars really push Mike Modano out of town?
SBNation.com: A lot of Stars fans seem to believe that Mike Modano was "pushed out" in Dallas. He's too old. The team doesn't want him anymore. A classless act by the organization. But is that really, truly what happened?
Back in April, at the Stars last home game of the 2009-10 campaign, it was painfully and tearfully obvious that Modano wasn't going to play another game as a Star. The team recognized him as the face of the franchise, gave him a spot on the video board in the middle of the game, and when he scored the game-tying goal late in the third period of that final game, the crowd erupted and applauded like they really were sending off a hero.
Of course, they were. It was a perfect evening and a perfect send off for the man who largely made the Stars what they are. But then, just a few months later, Modano says he wants to play some more. The Stars had really already done their part -- you have to think they assumed he was retiring. They had moved on, and that was certainly clear when they said publicly that they wouldn't re-sign him in late June.
But that didn't stop fans from speaking their minds. They were pissed. If a player retires with your team, he's still yours. Forever. Modano, now a Red Wing, isn't theirs anymore, and that doesn't sit well with people.
Does that mean the Stars pushed him out of town? Of course not. They made a business decision that's completely understandable, but that doesn't make it any easier for people to digest.
4. When will the sale of the team be completed and how will that affect the team this season?
DBD: Stars fans, having just witnessed the protracted 14 month debacle that was the sale of the Texas Rangers, are concerned a similarly sticky mess of bankruptcy courts and perpetually pushed back deadlines could plague the hockey team as the sale moves forward. Fortunately the circumstances surrounding the sale of the Stars are not nearly as convoluted and disadvantageous. (For a lengthy discussion of said circumstances visit this DBD post.)
This sale is happening via a private auction, leveraged by Galatioto Sports Partners (GSP) and the official number of bidders currently stands at two: Bill Gallacher, and Tom Gaglardi, both wealthy Canadian businessmen. Mike Modano and former Stars president Jim Lites tried to put a group together but dropped out of the running, as did News Corp (FOX). Mark Cuban, despite what you may have heard, was never seriously in the running.
It has been reported in recent weeks that GSP is actively seeking other bidders to attempt to ignite a bidding war and push the price of the team up. Although the Stars bankruptcy protections expired on September 1st, there are no plans to force the team in to bankruptcy (like the Rangers, or Coyotes). All sides seem content to wait. Patiently. And so must Stars fans.
The hope currently is that this will get done by the end of the calendar year. Should the Stars find themselves would-be buyers at the deadline, the sale would potentially allow them to add payroll dollars. Something they were unable to do this summer.
5. How can the Stars, 23rd in the league at 2.98 GAA, expect to improve defensively as they bring back the exact same blue-line from last year?
DBD: Since the departures of Sergei Zubov, Philip Boucher, and Mattias Norstrum, the Stars have lacked solid veteran presence and a dynamic puck mover/power play quarter back on their blue line. The Stars blue line is the lowest paid (for a reason) in the Western Conference, and internal budget restrictions connected to owner Tom Hicks and his sale of the team restricted their ability to add payroll dollars in the form of defensive help.
The situation is not without bright spots. Mark Fistric, in his first full season with the Stars managed a team leading +27 in only 67 games played. He is expected to continue his development, along with Swede Nick Grossman.
Until the team is sold and some money is injected into this defense, it's hard to say the Stars can drastically improve things defensively. The Stars bring back the same 7 from last season and hope that familiarity in Crawfords system, improvement from the younger guys, and Kari Lehtonen will be enough to lower the GAA.
Be sure to read an in-depth preview of the Stars 2010-11 season over at Defending Big D. Also, be sure to check out a preview of the Pacific Division over at From The Rink.