Stars Face Crossroads In Off-Season
Tuesday, 04.13.2010 / 6:04 PM / News
By Ken Sins
The Stars find themselves at a crossroads, gathering in Frisco on Tuesday morning to pack up their gear and officially begin what promises to be a tumultuous offseason far sooner than they anticipated.
"We've danced around the issue with Marty and I think he clearly understands the situation,'' Nieuwendyk said. "We're moving forward with Kari. I'm sure Marty will test the waters of free agency. I want to thank Marty for 10 years of service here. But I felt it was time we went in a different direction.''
Center Mike Modano, the face of the franchise and the leading U.S.-born goal-scorer in NHL history, is leaning toward retirement. Modano will consider his future during the summer, with no timetable for a decision.
"I'm going to be in no rush, not set a certain date,'' Modano said. "When I feel it, I'll make that call, but it's not going to be probably until mid-to-late summer.''
Injures might end the career of right wing Jere Lehtinen, the three-time Selke Trophy winner who's been with the Stars since 1995 and was a key member of the '99 Stanley Cup champs along with Modano and Nieuwendyk. Lehtinen would like to return for another season, but he admitted on Tuesday that injuries which knocked him out of 24 games last season might mean it's time to retire.
If that isn't enough going on, the Stars are for sale by owner Tom Hicks. A group headed by Dallas-area businessman William Quinn that includes Modano and former Stars president Jim Lites has recently emerged as a bidder for the club from Hicks, who bought the team in 1994.
"There's a little bit of uncertainty for numerous reasons, and ownership is a big part,'' center Brad Richards said.
Other groups are also poised to make offers in a process that could get resolved fast, or drag into next season.
"It could happen quickly, they're putting groups together, but it's out of my control,'' Nieuwendyk said.
One thing is clear: Change will be the norm for the Stars during an eventful offseason as these and other issues are resolved.
"I feel it's an interesting and difficult time for the franchise,'' Nieuwendyk said. "There's ownership at the forefront, there's older players getting on in their career, and we haven't made the playoffs for two years. So there's a cloud hanging over us, no question about it. It's my job to help move that cloud out of here and return this franchise to the pride that I felt as a player here for so many years and the pride I felt the other night in what was potentially Mike Modano's and Jere Lehtinen's last home game.
"Everybody in the building felt that. We have a high standard here and we've let it slip for a few years. It's all our jobs and especially my job to correct that and get us back to the status that we once had.''
Among the prevailing messages from Tuesday's team farewell: sitting out the postseason for two straight seasons for the first time since 1987 and 1988 when the franchise was located in Minnesota isn't acceptable to anyone in the organization.
"It's probably the worst feeling in hockey when you don't go to the playoffs,'' Nieuwendyk said. "For a player and people in management, it's what you play for. So it's disappointing. I know the fans are disappointed, and we have some work to do. This is two years in a row. The thing I love about our team and the expectations from our fans is that those expectations are high and we didn't meet them.''
Wrapping up the sale prior to July 1 would allow Nieuwendyk to set his budget for free agency. If the transaction isn't complete by then, Nieuwendyk would probably have to operate under this season's budget of about $45 million, one of the league's five lowest.
So signing free agents and acquiring big contracts through trades might not be possible until the final budget is set.
"I'm under the assumption that we'll be running under the same budget for next year and that's the way we'll operate this year,'' Nieuwendyk said.
Some of the areas that must be addressed:
*Cut down on the goals-against. Dallas gave up 244 goals, 23rd in the league. Fingers are pointed at the defense and Turco, but there were more problems afoot. The Stars scored 230 goals, a respectable 10th in the league under coach Marc Crawford's up-tempo style, but they have to be more defensively responsible as a group.
"We'll certainly look to help bolster our blueline,'' Nieuwendyk said.
Installing Lehtonen as the No. 1 guy is a start.
"We've had a long tradition of having premium goaltenders, going back to Eddie Belfour, who kind of passed the torch to Marty Turco,'' Nieuwendyk said. "And Marty has been a solid goaltender here for a decade here. But I felt for the long-term success of our franchise we needed to acquire Kari Lehtonen. The way he played the last 10, 12 games showed with a good summer of training he can be an elite goaltender like he was early in his career.''
*Improve the road record. The Stars finished 14-20-7 away from the AAC, tied for 22nd in the league. They weren't awful at home at 23-11-7, although that wasn't nearly as dominant as previous editions.
Crawford's more free-wheeling scheme is beneficial at home, but on the road, it's more of a challenge.
"That type of style allows you to play that way at home, when you can dictate matchups and things like that, but we were never able to find that balance on the road,'' Nieuwendyk said.
*Develop consistency. This team didn't win more than two straight games all season, an eye-opening stat. The Stars didn't lose more than three in a row either, an indication that with some internal improvement and a few new faces, they might not be that far away from returning to the playoffs in 2010-11. One factor that hurt the Stars was their 10 shootout loses, tied for most in the league.
*Fix the penalty kill. Dallas negated 77.4 percent of enemy power plays, a disappointing 27th in the NHL.
The season wasn't a total washout. Rookie forward Jamie Benn had a breakout debut, finishing with 22 goals. Benn will have the opportunity for further development, joining the AHL Texas Stars for the playoffs.
Richards tied a career high with 91 points, establishing himself as a franchise cornerstone as he fell two points short of matching Modano's total in 1993-94 for the most productive season since the team moved to Dallas.
Wingers Loui Eriksson (29), James Neal (27) and Steve Ott (22) all established career highs for goals, and defenseman Mark Fistric was an amazing plus-27 on a roster dominated by minus ratings.
Another positive: the Stars know they're deep up the middle with Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Benn and Tom Wandell returning from a knee injury.
"That's probably the strength of our team,'' Nieuwendyk said. "The movement of Jamie Benn to center has been a big plus. He's a gifted player who could probably play any position, but the size and the pace he plays at were a big plus for us down the middle.''
It was a season of learning on the job for Nieuwendyk, the rookie GM.
"There were ups and downs that are going to help me be better,'' Nieuwendyk said. "I learned a lot about the organization and about the individuals on our team, how they fit in with what we're trying to do.
"I think we do have to make some changes. You can't assume you can go out through free agency and buy a team. We all have a responsibility internally to try and get better.''