By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
With Donald Audette, Valeri Kamensky, Jyrki Lumme, Pierre Turgeon and Pat Verbeek added last offseason to the talented cast of characters already in Dallas, the Stars were thinking their first season in the American Airlines Center might be a special one.
Dallas tried the big-spending thing last offseason, but flushed its season down the toilet midway through when they realized they had made some bad signings.
After limping out to a 7-7-5-3 start, Audette was traded to Montreal on Nov. 22, general manager Bob Gainey announced he was stepping down at the end of the season on Dec. 4, Kamensky was dealt to the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 17, and Ken Hitchcock was fired Jan. 25. The Stars were 23-17-6-4 when Hitchcock was let go, but didn't make the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
Dallas finished 10th in the Western Conference, behind more budget-conscious teams like Chicago, Phoenix, Vancouver and Edmonton. The Stars realize they have a good deal of work to do, but are talented enough to compete with Detroit, Colorado, San Jose and St. Louis for the top spot in the West.
"It was very disappointing," Stars general manager Doug Armstrong said. "When things went wrong last year we just couldn't seem to get it back on the tracks. It was frustrating because I really believe in the core group of players that were here last year, but it was just one of those years that no matter what the organization attempted to do it couldn't get back on track. We expect to compete with the top teams every year and last year we fell short of that. The hunger and the drive in our organization right now is to show that last season was an abnormal and is not going to be a normal way of business around here."
The Stars signed right wing Bill Guerin to a five-year, $45 million contract, expecting to pair him on the top line with Mike Modano to form a dynamic offensive tandem. Dallas also signed right wing Scott Young from St. Louis, reuniting him with Pierre Turgeon, who was Young's center with the Blues when he scored 40 goals in 2000-01. The final major free-agent signing was getting Phillipe Boucher from Los Angeles to add depth to an already solid defensive unit. Gone from last year's team are Ed Belfour (Toronto), Brent Gilchrist (Nashville), Brad Lukowich (Tampa Bay), John MacLean (retired) and Randy McKay (Montreal)
With three capable scoring lines, six quality defensemen and a solid tandem in the nets, the Stars have the look and feel of a Stanley Cup contender once again.
The Stars' all-time leading scorer remains one of the top two-way players in the world, with only Peter Forsberg and Sergei Fedorov offering a challenge in that category. Though he is clearly a top-line player, Modano's versatility allows him to play occasionally on a checking line with Jere Lehtinen.
"I think he's been one of the top three or four players in the world for the last five or six years," Armstrong said. "Mike has great ability to play the game at both ends of the rink. He's been asked to be a primary checker against the other team's top lines. He's just the best all-around player in the game today."
Last year was the first time since 1995-96 that Modano didn't average a point per game, though he was darn close at .987. He also now has six consecutive seasons at even or plus, during which time he is a cumulative plus-137. Modano has averaged 34.8 goals in the past four seasons, but he could see that total surge playing on a line with a dangerous sniper like Guerin. If Ulf Dahlen or whoever ends up on the left wing develops an offensive rhythm with Modano and Guerin, that trio could be one of the most dangerous in the league.
Turco outperformed the aging Belfour for most of last season, but the Stars were reluctant to bench the mercurial veteran goalie and go with the youngster. Last season, Turco was 15-6-2 with a 2.09 goal-against average and a .920 save percentage in 32 games, while in 2000-01 he had a 13-6-1 record, a 1.89 GAA and a .925 save pct. in 26 games. By contrast, Belfour posted a 21-27-11 record with a 2.65 GAA (his highest in five seasons) and a disappointing .895 save pct. (the second worst of his 12-year career).
Despite the claims that Turco is inexperienced, he isn't entirely wet behind ears, having posted a 127-28-7 record in four years as a starter at the University of Michigan, one of the top U.S. college hockey programs. It's true he could surpass his previous career total of 57 career games this season alone, but at 27, Turco is older than such established vets in the nets like Jose Theodore (26), Brent Johnson (25), Martin Biron (25), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (25) and Roberto Luongo (23).
"I'm not sure if I would describe it as a weakness, it's just our goaltending is unproven," Armstrong said. "That's the one area I get the most questions about, but we are confident in Turco and Tugnutt. But Marty hasn't played the 40-45-50 games that he potentially could play this year. When you look at our roster, you see time-tested and proven players throughout it and that's the one area where it's not."
With a veteran defense in front of him, Turco's first season as the full-time starter looks promising.
Tippett is the Stars' third coach this calendar year, with Rick Wilson sandwiched in between Tippett and Hitchcock as the interim coach. Wilson is still on board as the associate coach, which could help ease Tippett's transition to his first NHL coaching job.
"They have different philosophies and different outlooks on the game," Armstrong said of Tippett and Hitchcock. "I think they are both excellent coaches in their own right. No one will argue with Ken Hitchcock's success or I won't argue with the way he brought the best out of his players. Dave Tippett goes about it a little bit different. He's learning and working every day to get stronger as a coach. We have a young group -- like Marty Turco, Dave and I are in our first year as coach and general manager -- so we're all going to grow and learn together here."
Tippett favors an uptempo game with the emphasis on quick transitions from defense to offense. He likes the game to feature solid skating and lots of puck movement. One of the things Tippett can be counted on doing is allowing his defensemen more offensive freedom, something that could result in a career year for Sergei Zubov, and bounceback years for Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk and Darryl Sydor.
Los Angeles had the top power play in the league last season (20.6 percent), and much of the credit for the Kings' success with the extra man was given to Tippett. He will not try to improve the Stars' power play, which was eighth-best in the league with a 17.1 percent success rate.
Steve Ott is a pest with potential. Though he has 237 points in the past three seasons with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, it's his 473 penalty minutes that jump out at you and likely will earn him an NHL roster spot at some point this season.
"He's an agitating player who seems to get under the opponent's skin, but he also has the ability to score and produce offensive numbers," Armstrong said. "He's done that in junior and we saw it [against Colorado on Sept. 19], as he had three assists in that game. So I think he'll be an agitating player, with both physical play and also some offensive instincts that will separate him just from being an agitator."
Ott scored 43 goals and had 45 assists in 53 regular-season games last year, then added six goals and nine assists in 13 playoff games. Unfortunately his temper gt the best of him and he was suspended for two games after headbutting an opposing player.
Ott is a ferocious forechecker who battles relentlessly for the puck and has a great work ethic. He likely projects to be a third-line player who will excel at killing penalties and chip in the with the occassional offensive foray. Think Claude Lemieux or Darcy Tucker, and that's a pretty good comparison for how Ott could end up.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.