If the NHL were a classroom, the Stars would be the student who aces every test during the semester only to have his average ruined by failing the final exam. Dallas put together the best regular season in franchise history last year and tied for the league's second-best record (48-26-8), but it was unexpectedly bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Oilers. Unfortunately for the Stars, final grades in the NHL are determined by postseason performance.
This could be the year Dallas graduates to the top of the class. As the league's most improved team a year ago, the Stars sneaked up on the competition. No longer: Dallas is a Stanley Cup contender. "We need to get over the next hurdle," says third-year coach Ken Hitchcock. "Teams will be ready for us this year."
To make sure the Stars are ready for fired-up opposition, deep-pocketed owner Tom Hicks went on a free-agent spending spree in the off-season, committing $20 million over the next three years to sign goaltender Ed Belfour, defenseman Shawn Chambers and winger Bob Errey. Hicks, however, has not ponied up enough money to keep his top defender and captain, Derian Hatcher, happy. The return of the 6'5", 225-pound Hatcher, a restricted free agent who as of Monday had not signed, is vital to the team.
The trio of veteran newcomers will certainly upgrade Dallas's talent level, but perhaps more important, they will tutor the rest of the Stars in what it takes to scale the playoff mountain. Chambers and Errey have played on Stanley Cup winners, and Belfour, one of the league's fiercest competitors, won an NHL-record 11-straight playoff games with the Blackhawks in 1992.
Assuming Hatcher is back, Belfour will have the luxury of playing behind one of the NHL's best and deepest defensive units. In addition to Hatcher and Chambers, the backliners include Sergei Zubov, Richard Matvichuk, Darryl Sydor and Craig Ludwig.
Offense is where the Stars need to improve. Even with the fleet center Mike Modano, who had 35 goals and 83 points last season, the power play was awful in the regular season (14.6% success rate, 19th in the league) and even worse (3 for 40) in the playoffs. That must change if Dallas is to avoid another early postseason exit.
The Stars think that they are built for a Stanley Cup run this season. "They've put the pieces together for us to have a championship team," says center Joe Nieuwendyk. "We have a real solid team."