The stars have it all: goal-tending, a premier defense, two scoring lines, wicked specialty teams, revered grinders, plenty of leadership and the best quotes in hockey now that Brett Hull has arrived to narrowly tip the balance of power from the splendid Red Wings.
Hull is the world's noisiest 27-goal scorer, a fountain of opinion and candor in a mealy-mouthed league. Hull, a one-way winger, is the antithesis of his general manager, Bob Gainey, who's as measured now as he was stoic when he starred as a defensive forward for the Canadiens in the 1970s and '80s. Hull's style might not be Gainey's style, but after seeing sly Detroit shut down Dallas center Mike Modano last spring in the Western Conference finals en route to their second straight Stanley Cup, Gainey knew the Stars were at least one game-breaker from a championship. Hull, signed as an unrestricted free agent, will cost $17 million for the next three seasons, not back-checking money. Although he has averaged only 37 goals the past three years and hasn't scored 50 since 1993-94, he's still capable, at age 34, of at least 40—especially with the quality minutes he'll get on the power play.
"The main thing I want to be is a champion," says Hull, a righthanded shot who will start at left wing on Modano's line. "When the Stars called, I knew it was an opportunity to win."
"Brett has some challenges ahead of himself," Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock says. "It will be a question of how quickly he makes an emotional contact with the group."
There's also the question of how quickly Hull makes an emotional contact with Hitchcock. During his more than 10 seasons in St. Louis, Hull's relationship with several coaches, notably Mike Keenan, was headline-grabbingly rocky. Hitchcock is a stickler for detail who rarely lets anything slide, not a comforting thought for an instinctive player like Hull. As one former Star put it, "I like Hitch, but he doesn't trust his players."
The abundance of leadership in the Dallas dressing room (in addition to captain Derian Hatcher, six other Stars have been NHL captains: Hull, Guy Carbonneau, Mike Keane, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brian Skrudland and Pat Verbeek) should smooth over the inevitable eruptions. The downside of veteran leadership is that it's veteran. Dallas is the NHL's oldest team, averaging 29.2 years old. There's a wealth of mid-20's talent, including defensemen Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk and defensive specialist Jere Lehtinen, who will ride shotgun with Modano and Hull, but the window of Stanley Cup opportunity for this franchise is small because of the high mileage on many of its core players.
The six former captains average 34 years of age, and four other important players—goaltender Ed Belfour, defensemen Craig Ludwig and Shawn Chambers and checker Dave Reid—are all past 30. Because of the age factor, it will be to the Stars' advantage that the new divisional setup and revised schedule has reduced the arduous travel that marked last season. Hitchcock has calculated that the Stars will fly 11,000 fewer miles, have 18 more practices and four or five extra days off this year. That, folks, is planning.
"You look at the teams that have won the Stanley Cup the past three years, Colorado and Detroit, you see great contributions from role players offensively and defensively," Hitchcock says. "But before you can get to that technical level, you have to make some strides on the emotional level. We have some players like Lehtinen, Modano and [superb power-play defenseman Sergei] Zubov who should be at their prime physically, but we have to make sure that everyone gets there in the emotional areas at the same time. We're not there yet."
But the Stars should be there in June.