By Seth Viertel
After a painfully slow start to the season and a combined 168 man-games lost to injury to top players Brenden Morrow, Sergei Zubov and Brad Richards, the '08-'09 Dallas Stars struggled and ultimately missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. With many people wondering what went so wrong with last years team that was fresh off a trip to the Western Conference Finals in '08, you got the feeling that changes would come...and they indeed have.
First was the end of the short lived Les Jackson and Brett Hull Duel-General Manager era. Owner Tom Hicks brought in Joe Nieuwendyk as the sole General Manager to help get the Dallas Stars back to playoff success and only days after came the firing of head coach Dave Tippett, and hiring of the more tyrannical Marc Crawford. Tippett, some would argue should have been given a pass considering his record while in Dallas and how much he had actually gotten out of his injury plagued team, but there were also rumblings about that the team was becoming a little too soft with the player-friendly Tippett holding the whip.
With the hiring of Crawford, the pendulum swung back towards what people could say is more what Dallas had when Ken Hitchcock was coach and there was obvious playoff and Stanley Cup success. What we can most likely anticipate is that Crawford will push players out of their comfort zones and really find out what makes them tick. If this is what it takes to get Brad Richards motivated, then he asked for it. The fiery coach is known more for getting the results he wants rather than what the player wants. He is more likely to rely on his top two lines in competition rather than rolling all four the way Tippett was prone to doing which will result in extra ice time for the more skilled players and more pressure on the attack.
For this to pan out, there needs to be balance and Nieuwendyk has some work to do to fill up noticeable holes in getting right shot forwards in the lineup and also insuring their promising, but still relatively inexperienced D-core. He addressed the need for right shot forwards with the taking of quick, play-making sniper Scott Glennie with the No. 8 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, though it will be at least another year before this guy makes the jump to the NHL level.
They could look to fill this gap in free agency, though they will most likely make do with what they have much like in the previous season if Jere Lehtinen agrees to another year, which should be the case considering what he brings to the team as one of the best two way forwards in the game. I have a hard time believing Joe would let this guy go considering he is exactly what you want come playoff time and his devotion to the only club he has ever known means you can likely work a one year deal for under $2 million.
If any moves are made in free agency to improve the team, look for them to add some help for their young group of defensive players. With Zubov's health being more and more of an issue the last few seasons, the need for another crafty PP specialist on the blue line is something the organization must address soon. Zubov is near the end of his career and its time to start looking for a decent replacement even though there is no such thing as another Sergei Zubov. That being said, the Stars have little room under the cap to spend and with owner Tom Hicks in a financial crunch regarding both his Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers sports teams, you can bet the organization wants to avoid spending to the cap. This makes finding a No. 1 defensemen who can work the blue line and quarterback the powerplay very difficult unless you were willing to clear space by letting Zubov and his likely $3-4 million price tag go.
Another option would be to trade a player like Loui Eriksson to a team like the Oilers who appear to be willing to part ways with Sheldon Souray or Lubomir Visnovsky. With Eriksson becoming quite a favorable first line finisher and two-way player, it would be a lot to give up even with depth at left wing.
The goalie situation is in my opinion questionable. I have always been a Turco fan, but he has over the last few seasons shown that he needs a capable backup around to push him in order for him to reach his full potential which is what Tobias Stephan wasn't able to provide with his few, but uninspiring starts last season. If Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson can be lured to play for Dallas, this could be just what the Stars and Turco need.
Gustavsson, who is referred to as "The Monster," follows the recent trend of big net minders who cover the net well and he has shown that he has the skill set and potential to become a great NHL goalie. Gustavsson has expressed interest in four teams, Dallas, Toronto, San Jose and Colorado. The fact that the Stars have a good record when it comes to grooming NHL goaltenders along with their assimilation of Swedish players within the organization gives Dallas a pretty good shot at nabbing him. It also doesn't hurt that current Dallas Star Fabian Brunnstrom is a former teammate of Gustavsson's.
Even with a talented core of Morrow, Ribeiro, Richards, Lehtinen, Modano, Eriksson, Ott, sophomore James Neal and warrior defenseman Stephan Robidas on the roster, there are still a couple pieces that need to be added for the Stars to become a playoff threat to teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh who have three scoring lines and solid veteran led defenses. Nieuwendyk certainly has some work to do, but with his winning attitude and a little bit of luck this offseason, the Stars could be aligned for greatness once again.