Dallas Stars Season Preview

The Dallas Stars have been the most understated, underrated and undervalued franchise in recent history. Playing below the radar with a defensive style allowing little in the way of crowd-pleasing offensive sorties, the Stars nevertheless have recorded the second best winning percentage (.642) since the lockout of 2004. In that time span, they have never finished worse than sixth in goals or shots against, an indication that they rarely get outplayed.,

Head Coach Dave Tippett, who has the best winning percentage among active coaches (.632), rode the club to a strong post-season finish after they sputtered during the early and late stages of the regular season in 2007-2008. The Stars’ strong showing that carried them into a six game showdown with eventual Cup Champion Detroit in the Conference Finals last Spring seems to have landed him in good stead – his job no longer seems in jeopardy, an annual talk show tidbit for north Texas hockey fans and radio call in shows..

His outstanding work has also landed the Stars as one of the co-favorites to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup next Spring, a lofty expectation for a franchise that looked on the brink of possibly undergoing an overhaul with the early-season firing of general manager Doug Armstrong last November. Dallas was a .500 team at the time, very dependent on a handful of aging stars. The franchise was taking a gamble by being the only team in the league to split the general manager’s seat between two men, Les Jackson and Brett Hull.

But give Owner Tom Hicks credit for having the patience await their development, both in that role, and as co-dependents. The talented tandem acquired five star forward Brad Richards at last year’s trade deadline, and they enabled Mike Ribeiro to transition from journeyman to bona fide star. They also had the patience to await the emergence of a young blue line corps featuring Matt Niskanen, Trevor Daley, Niklas Grossman, and Stephane Robidas (plus an infrequently healthy Philippe Boucher helped the team survive and even prosper during a long stretch without power play QB Sergei Zubov last year.

They also went deep into the postseason, where goalie finally exorcised his demons and took the Stars to within two wins of the Stanley Cup Finals. They achieved this on the heels of an unspectacular but workmanlike 45-30-7 (97 point) third place finish in the Pacific Division. Ranked 5th in the 45-30-7, 97 points, third place Pacific Division, fifth place Western Conference.

Playoff qualifiers for the 10th time in 11 seasons, the Stars shed the label of perennial first-round loser by first knocking off fourth-seeded division rival and defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim, then ran up a 3-0 lead on Pacific champ San Jose before eliminating the Sharks in six. Dallas reached the conference finals for the first time 2000 but lost in six games to eventual champ Detroit.

Western Conference and a playoff participant for the 10th time in 11 seasons, the Stars shed the label of perennial first-round loser by upending 4th seeded Anaheim – the defending Stanley Cup Champ — in 6 games, then won the first three games from the Sharks before eliminating the conference champs in six games.

With excitement over the team at a fever pitch during the off-season, the Stars raised some eyebrows and expectations for the 2008-2009 campaign by luring 23-year old Fabian Brunnstrom, the 23-year old Swedish star-in-waiting whom some felt would be wearing Red Wings’ colors. It will be interesting to watch Brunnstrom develop his skills after scoring 73 points in 41 games in lower level competition in Sweden before tallying 37 points in 54 games after he was moved upward. The Stars pledge patience with Brunnstrom, who will start on the team’s 2nd or 3rd lines before having the opportunity to advance.

Dallas also signed free agent forward Sean Avery, a professional pest who also has offensive skills. Sean should fit in nicely with the edgy agitator likes of captain Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott. They allowed wingers Antti Miettinen and Niklas Hagman to depart via free agency, which indicates a shift toward quicker, faster-paced offensive scheme.

The forward corps features Ribeiro, Richards and the ageless Mike Modano. Dallas’ wingers must contribute mightily for this team to score consistently, particularly veteran Jere Lehtinen (who was injured for most of last season) and the emerging, talented Loui Eriksson. Richards, in particular, struggled to fit in late last season but seemed to find his niche in the post-season. He is a major cog in the Stars’ attack, particularly in consideration of Modano’s late-career abilities.

Goalie Turco should continue to provide outstanding netminding, with 24-year old Tobias Stephan ready to spell him. Turco should carry the lion’s share of the workload since his former apprentice, Mike Smith, was used as trade bait to lure Richards to Big D.

If all goes according to plan, the Stars will leap frog over San Jose and Anaheim to return to the top of the pacific Division and alongside the Red Wings at the ahead of the Western Conference class in 2008-2009.

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Dallas Stars Season Preview

Dallas won their division for the seventh time in nine seasons last year and claimed the #2 seed in the Western Conference. Despite a disappointing first round playoff exit, the Stars maintained their status as one of the league’s elite teams. They enter 2006-07 with an ageing roster and could endure a tough season facing stiff competition in a strong Pacific division.

With high-scoring forward Jason Arnott, veteran backup goaltender Johan Hedberg and hard-nosed defenseman Willie Mitchell all leaving through free agency, the Stars had some holes to fill in their lineup this off-season. The team also bought out veteran forward Bill Guerin, who endured a disastrous year scoring just 13 goals. Free agent addition Eric Lindros is an excellent second line center but injury prone and veterans Matthew Barnaby and Jeff Halpern add grit and leadership on the lower lines. Acquired through trade, defensemen Darryl Sydor and Jaroslav Modry are getting on in years and are questionable choices to fill out this defense.

The Stars have a solid forward group but lack scoring depth. Jussi Jokinen will be relied upon to produce top numbers after an excellent rookie season and Eric Lindros will need to remain healthy while veterans Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen will once again be key contributors. The defense is strong, led by the incredible Sergei Zubov and the underrated Phillipe Boucher. Without a recognizable NHL caliber backup in goal, the Stars will count on Marty Turco to rebound from a disappointing 2005-06.

The prospect base contains largely marginal players and lacks potential stars. Young forward Loui Eriksson will compete for a roster spot after a good AHL season last year. With no other obvious choice, Tobias Stephan could serve as back up to Turco this season.

There is no doubt that Dallas is a declining team as core players Modano, Zubov and Lehtinen are entering the twilight of their careers. This is however, a team with the ability to compete. Turco is still arguably the best goaltender in the division; with an average defense and solid forward group, the Stars should make the playoffs.

Forwards

The weakness of this Dallas line-up could prove to be their lack of scoring depth. Last season’s top line of Jokinen, Modano and Lehtinen is likely to be reunited and with Arnott’s departure, will be given even more offensive responsibility. Jokinen will need to build upon his excellent rookie campaign and the Stars hope he can emerge as the offensive leader. The second line will be built around Lindros; Brenden Morrow deservedly won many fans hearts with his excellent play in 2005-06 but will need to put up similar offensive numbers without Arnott. Young winger Antti Miettinen will have an opportunity to demonstrate his scoring ability playing in a top six forward role.

Dallas has some depth in the lower lines. New additions Stefan and Halpern will battle it out to center a third line; Stu Barnes and Niklas Hagman are both useful third liners while Barnaby will play the agitator role on the fourth line. Developing forward Steve Ott is also likely to be used on the fourth line but is not a guarantee as Mathias Tjarnqvist and Loui Eriksson are also competing for roster spots.

Defense

Zubov continued to defy age last season as he posted an impressive 71 points in 78 games and will once again lead the defense. The underappreciated Boucher also enjoyed an excellent season and will provide stability on the second pair. Outside of these two, the defense is questionable. Sydor is apparently going to play on the top pair but struggled badly with Tampa Bay last season posting a team low plus/minus rating of -18. Another new addition, Modry, should provide decent offense but was part of a poor Atlanta defense last season and also held the team low plus/minus rating at -9. Young defenseman Trevor Daley should continue to improve this season playing regular minutes. Stephane Robidas, Janne Niinimaa and Jon Klemm will compete for time as well. Robidas is expected to fill the role after an excellent season in 2005-06, but Klemm is a solid veteran defensive defenseman and could prove an ideal partner for Daley.

Goaltending

Marty Turco, who has proven himself in the past as an excellent goaltender in the regular season, was a disappointment last season. With a lack of other NHL quality goaltenders in the organization, he will be the undisputed starter. The backup role is currently open and coach Dave Tippett will make the decision based upon preseason performances. Three goaltenders will be competing for the backup role. The franchise’s top goaltending prospect, Tobias Stephan, is likely to at least start the season in the AHL, leaving Mike Smith and Dan Ellis as the main competitors to win the role. Both enjoyed good seasons for the Iowa Stars in the AHL last season where Smith was the number-one man. Neither has any NHL experience.

Special Teams

Dallas was unspectacular on special teams last season, ranking 20th overall for power-play performance and 11th on the penalty kill. Lindros, when healthy, should replace the loss of Arnott’s presence on the power-play. The loss of Niko Kapanen will be difficult to replace; he ate up much ice-time in all situations.

The top power-play unit will have Zubov and Boucher at the point, with Modry running the second unit alongside Daley, Sydor or Robidas. Down low, Lehtinen has an excellent scoring record on the power-play, Modano and Jokinen will ice lots of power-play time with Lindros a possibility to play in front of the net. Morrow is another good option; Miettinen and Halpern will both see plenty of time and if young forward Eriksson makes the team, he’ll undoubtedly be utilized.

The Stars penalty kill should be acceptable once again this year. Zubov and Boucher will play many minutes in the defensive roles. Sydor, Klemm and Daley will also get their share; Klemm and Daley in particular have excellent shot-blocking abilities. As for fore-checking, Barnes and forwards Lehtinen, Modano and Morrow will get plenty of action. Ott and new additions Halpern and Barnaby should help spread out the ice-time a little more than last season though.

Coaching

Dave Tippett enters his fourth season with Dallas; when named to the post on May 21st, 2002 he became the 19th head coach in franchise history. In his first season as coach, the Stars won their division and posted the fourth highest point total for a team coached by a rookie in NHL history. Prior to joining Dallas, Tippett was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Kings for three seasons where he played a key role as the offensive specialist for the club.

Tippett’s assistants are Rick Wilson and Mark Lamb. Wilson is vastly experienced, entering his 12th season, and works with the defensemen. During his tenure, he has been apart of six division titles, two Western Conference crowns, two President Trophies and the Stanley Cup victory in 1999. Prior to joining Dallas, Wilson spent time as an assistant coach with the Kings and New York Islanders. Lamb works with the forwards and enters his fourth season with the club. Previously, he worked for two seasons in the Edmonton Oilers organization as an assistant coach.

Off-season Moves

With key scoring forward Arnott leaving through free agency along with defenseman Willie Mitchell and goaltender Johan Hedberg, Dallas had to bring in several new faces. The Stars bought out Bill Guerin’s contract and traded Kapanen on draft day for underachiever Patrik Stefan and veteran defenseman Jaroslav Modry; they also traded a draft pick for Darryl Sydor.

Armstrong was faced with the challenge of filling the holes in the Dallas line-up while not going over the $44 million cap. Versatile veteran forward Jeff Halpern was a good addition; he can play in all situations as a third or fourth liner. Matthew Barnaby brings grit to the fourth line. Armstrong’s biggest move was taking a gamble on Eric Lindros. While a one-year deal reduces the long-term risks, his role on this team is crucial; if he suffers another severe injury, the gamble will not have been worth it.

Prospects

Dallas has one of the weakest groups with a number of marginal players and few truly good prospects. Interestingly, most of the Stars good prospects are European and the Stars have done particularly well drafting out of Finland.
The goaltending situation is very limited. Tobias Stephan is the only true goaltending prospect for the Stars; he will get his first taste of North American hockey this season, most likely in the AHL, although with the lack of goaltending depth in the organization, he could make the jump up at some point.

They do have a good group of defensemen, though. Matt Niskanen, Ivan Vishnevskiy and Niklas Grossman are all solid NHL prospects. Niskanen, in particular, possesses good offensive abilities and enjoyed a good college season last year.

Loui Eriksson, the team’s top prospect, enjoyed an excellent last year in the AHL; he could win a roster spot with a good showing at training camp. Perttu Lindgren had an extremely successful rookie season in the Finnish Elite league and Vojtech Polak is a useful prospect who should once again play for Dallas’s AHL affiliate.

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