Unheralded Halpern a significant addition to Stars
July 31, 2006
By John Tranchina
It may not have created quite the media buzz as some of the Dallas Stars' other off-season acquisitions, but the signing of free agent center Jeff Halpern on July 5 to a four-year contract undoubtedly ranks as one of the club's most significant additions.
In 70 games last year, sometimes centering the top line with scoring sensation Alexander Ovechkin, other times serving in a more defensive role, Halpern registered a career-high 33 assists and 44 points, both third-most on the Capitals. He has scored 18 or more goals and 42 or more points three different times in his six seasons.
"Jeff will be a key player for us," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "He is a versatile player who can play in several different situations throughout the course of a game and that is critical to the success of a team. He is a hard-working, gritty competitor that will do whatever it takes for his team to win."
While the 6-foot, 198-pound Halpern comes in as the Stars' third-line center behind captain Mike Modano and recently-signed Eric Lindros, his ability to shut down opposing teams' offensive weapons will be indispensable. So even though other incoming players like Lindros, returning defenseman Darryl Sydor and even agitator Matthew Barnaby, might command more attention, the quiet Halpern will likely have as much or more impact on the Stars' fortunes this year.
"He's a guy that, a lot of nights, will play against the other team's top players," Tippett said. "He's an excellent checker, an excellent character guy, very good on face-offs. He's a guy that will play at a lot of key points in the game, and will determine a lot of our success, but probably will be less-heralded than Mike or Eric will be. But if you talk to Jeff, that's the way he kind of likes it."
At first glance, it might seem odd that Halpern would choose to leave Washington. After all, not only was he the Capitals' captain last season and one of their longest-tenured players, Halpern is from the DC area.
A native of Potomac, Maryland, a Washington suburb, Halpern grew up cheering for the Capitals and attended many games as a youngster. After spending four years at Princeton University, Halpern made the Caps out of training camp in 1999-2000, becoming the first born-and-bred Maryland/DC-area player to reach the NHL.
So with all that history and emotional investment, why did Halpern leave Washington? One reason: he wants to win.
"It was a difficult decision," he acknowledged. "But I think the hockey part of my life, looking at my career, this was the most important thing for me to do right now. This is exactly where I want to be. This seems to be the team right now where I feel I have the best chance to win. It's a big change, but I'm hoping that it's a better hockey environment which results in a better lifestyle move."
Coming from a club that was one of the NHL's three worst, both last season and the previous year in 2003-04, Halpern admitted that the losing atmosphere in Washington was difficult to deal with.
"I think when you're not in the playoffs and not even in the playoff hunt, it doesn't even feel like the NHL," he said. "For the last few years, it's been hard. It's hard to be part of the NHL when you're just left out of it like that."
At 30, Halpern was the aging veteran captain on a young Capitals squad, but entering the Stars' dressing room, he will be just another leader among many, and younger than most of them. He's looking forward to that experience and thinks the transition will be a smooth one.
"It'll be easy," he said. "In Washington, even though I was captain, we had a lot of leaders, even with a young team. For me to be a captain on one team, I don't think it changes my role, it just makes it easier that there's more players that I can look up to, to help me even more."
"Playing with Mike before, I know what type of person he is, on and off the ice, and the type of guy that teammates look up to," Halpern said. "It was just a pleasure to play behind him and see what he does on the ice."
"He's just real consistent, a solid guy, a lot like Stu Barnes, just a very dependable guy," Modano said of Halpern. "He'll do anything you ask for him to do. Hard worker, quiet, but a real positive guy."
For Modano to compare Halpern to Barnes is a very high compliment. So when Stars General Manager Doug Armstrong asked Modano's opinion of Halpern before signing him, he received a glowing review.
"I talked to (Modano) about him from his international experience with him," Armstrong said, "and he said he's got a high level of character and work ethic and a desire to win, and that's the type of people we're looking to bring in."
One of Halpern's most impressive areas of expertise is his face-off prowess. The fact that he took 32.8 percent of Washington's draws last year (tied for seventh-highest in the league) demonstrates how valued the Capitals considered him. Among players who took 1400 or more face-offs, he ranked third with a 55.2 winning percentage.
By comparison, last season for the Stars, Modano and the since-departed Jason Arnott each won 51.1 percent of their draws, while Barnes won 50.1, so Halpern clearly represents an upgrade in that department. He credits two former teammates in Washington with helping him develop that skill.
"Face-offs mean possession," noted Lindros, who is pretty good at draws himself, winning 53.5 percent of his draws last year in 33 games with Toronto. "It's huge on penalty kill, on power plays. It's huge in general, making sure you start with the puck as opposed to without it, so you're not chasing it all the time. It's a big benefit and Jeff's very good at it."
Another former teammate of Halpern's in Washington who helped him a lot during his first couple of seasons was Ulf Dahlen, the former Star who is returning to the club this season as Dave Tippett's assistant coach. In fact, Dahlen worked both sides in influencing Halpern to sign in Dallas.
"Jeff had a high recommendation from our new assistant coach Ulf Dahlen, who was a teammate and a linemate of his," Armstrong said.
Halpern said he was thrilled to be reunited with his old winger.
"He was a good friend of mine in Washington, playing on the same line with him for a few years," Halpern said. "I learned so much from him. I talked to him a couple of times when I was thinking about which teams to go to. I was pretty excited. He's a great personality to have in the room, whether he's a coach or a player."
Certainly, the same can be said about Jeff Halpern.