2010-11 NHL season preview: Dallas Stars

marccrawfordhaha.jpgLast season: (37-31-14, 88 points, 5th in Pacific Division,12th in Western Conference) Things have not been good for the Dallas Stars since they made a nice run to the Western Conference finals during the 2007-08 season. The team’s defense floundered so much without Sergei Zubov and coach Dave Tippett that it was hard to get too excited about their more explosive offense. Last season will undoubtedly be the end of an era as Mike Modano, Marty Turco (and possibly Jere Lehtinen) are long gone.

Head coach: Marc Crawford won a Stanley Cup, but he did so with ridiculous talent (seriously, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque played together on something other than an All-Star team?). Since then he’s been known more for ugly incidents (in Vancouver), losing young players (in Los Angeles) and his hair (everywhere). I’m not sold on Crawford as a head coach.

Key departures: F Mike Modano, G Marty Turco, F Jere Lehtinen. You can’t blame the Stars for letting 40-year-old Modano go and Turco needed to leave, too, while Lehtinen probably won’t play in the NHL next season. There’s only so much room for nostalgia in a salary-cap world.

Key arrivals: G Andrew Raycroft, F Adam Burish. The Stars are restricted by their messy ownership situation, which explains why they signed a journeyman backup in Raycroft and a tough player (but frequent healthy scratch) in Burish. You could probably consider Kari Lehtonen a near-new-arrival too, though.

Thumbnail image for Lehtonen.jpgUnder pressure: Lehtonen needs to stay healthy and put together the type of season people have been hoping for since the Thrashers made him a No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft. It’s not even the regular season yet and he is already struggling with groin problems, so he’s off to a bad (but sadly typical) start.

Protecting the house: Don’t get me wrong, Lehtonen shows flashes of brilliance. He’s a big, talented goalie who probably still leaves many scouts swooning on a game-by-game basis. It’s just that those appearances are depressingly seldom and trusting him to stay healthy is risky at best. If the Stars think Andrew Raycroft is going to get it done, then Stars fans should be very, very worried (note: the same goes for Brent Krahn).

Stephane Robidas is a rugged, likable defenseman but isn’t really an ideal No.1. Nicklas Grossman is a solid, stay-at-home type while Mark Fistric and Trevor Daley have some ability too. Yet let’s not avoid the obvious: this isn’t the kind of defense that wins divisions, let alone championships. At some point, GM Joe Nieuwendyk needs to add some security to this porous group.

Thumbnail image for brichardstrendingup.jpgTop line we’d like to see: James Neal-Brad Richards-Loui Eriksson. Neal brings the rugged power forward element, Richards is one of the league’s most gifted passers and Eriksson is one of its most underrated finishers. This trio has a little of everything, really.

Oh captain, my captain: Brenden Morrow hasn’t been the same since injuring his knee, but he’s still a rugged, heart-and-soul player who wrestled the captaincy from Mike Modano. Who knows if he’ll get his game back, but he’s still the right choice for captain.

Street fighting man: Krys Barch is enough of a fighter that Cam Janssen made a fight date with him on Twitter. Sometimes he’s more of a punch absorber than a fighter, but someone has to answer for Steve Ott’s big mouth.

Best-case scenario: Kari Lehtonen stays healthy and provides the Stars with stable, sometimes splendid goaltending. Their defense scraps and survives. Financial inspiration helps Richards match his 91-point output. A second year removed from knee surgery helps Morrow bounce back, which also enhances Mike Ribeiro’s game. The Stars score enough to cover up other blemishes and they take advantage of a weakened division to steal the second spot in the Pacific and make a respectable run to the second round of the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Lehtonen falls apart and Raycroft gets shredded behind an awful defense. Morrow never recovers from his injuries while Ribeiro sulks and is traded for draft picks. Richards cannot match his output from last season while Neal regresses. The Stars end up in the 10-12th range in the West so they don’t get a top pick and Crawford keeps his job.

Keeping it real: For a team that produces so much negativity, the Stars have plenty of firepower. Richards, Ribeiro, Morrow, Neal, Eriksson and even Ott can produce some nice offense. The problem is in their own end, where their coach, defense and injury-prone goalie all provide question marks at best. The Stars are likely to be in fourth or fifth place in the Pacific. Honestly, after years of being competitive and therefore settling for mediocre draft picks, maybe Dallas would be better off if they take their lumps during the season.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Stars get a 2. There are just too many strong points in the ‘cons’ column for the team’s notable pluses to produce much optimism. The Ducks have better top-end forwards and a more stable goalie, the Coyotes can protect their goalie with greater efficiency and the other California teams are just flat-out better. A playoff berth would be overachieving for this bunch, but again, they do have some talent.

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    The Buzzer: McDavid dominates; Fleury’s unlucky return

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    Player Of The Night: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

    The Edmonton Oilers have at least started to show some signs of life in recent games. They were shutout on Sunday night in Toronto, but sandwiched around that game were a convincing 6-2 win in Montreal and then a thoroughly dominating 7-2 win in Columbus on Tuesday night that left Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella completely speechless.

    Leading the way for the Oilers was captain Connor McDavid as he went off with a four-point night.

    The four points are a season high for him and the fifth time this season he has recorded at least three points.

    That performance gives him 39 points in 31 games on the season and currently has him third in the NHL scoring race, three points behind Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

    Marc-Andre Fleury Probably Deserved Better In His Return To The Lineup

    Marc-Andre Fleury made is return to the Vegas Golden Knights net and looked great, stopping 35 of the 37 shots he faced. Unfortunately that was not enough to get Vegas a win as they fell in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2.

    One of those two shots in regulation that beat him? It was this.

    That is unfortunate.

    Still, that is another point for Vegas as they continue their push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference during their inaugural season in the NHL.

    Highlight Of The Night

    The Philadelphia Flyers were 4-2 winners over the Toronto Maple Leafs and have now, suddenly, won four games in a row following a 10-game losing streak.

    They picked up the winner on Tuesday thanks to this goal that featured a crazy between-the-legs pass.

    Highlight Of The Night Part Two

    Now let us take a look at Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames. This came in a losing effort in the shootout but this is still a slick move. Maybe illegal? Either way, it counted.

    Factoid(s) Of The Night

    — By stopping all 32 shots he faced against the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up his 20th win of the season. He is just the sixth goalie in NHL history to win at least 20 games within his first 25 starts of a season. [NHL Public Relations]

    Matt Cullen scored his 250th career goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 shootout win over the Calgary Flames, making him the 29th American-born player in NHL history to reach that mark. [Minnesota Wild PR]

    — Carolina Hurricanes goalies Cam Ward recorded his 300th career win on Tuesday night in their 3-2 shootout win over the Vegas Golden Knights. He is the fifth active goaltender to reach that mark. [NHL Public Relations]

    Scores

    Buffalo Sabres 3, Ottawa Senators 2

    New Jersey Devils 5, Los Angeles Kings 1

    Philadelphia Flyers 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

    Washington Capitals 5, Colorado Avalanche 2

    Edmonton Oilers 7, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

    Tampa Bay Lightning 3, St. Louis Blues 0

    Minnesota Wild 2, Calgary Flames 1

    Chicago Blackhawks 3, Florida Panthers 2

    Carolina Hurricanes 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Vasilevskiy shines again as Lightning take top spot in NHL

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    Tuesday’s game in St. Louis was a showdown featuring the top two teams in the NHL.

    In the end it was the Lightning picking up the 3-0 win to extend their current winning streak to five games and to reclaim sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

    Their win improves them to 22-6-2 on the season and puts them two points ahead of the Blues despite having played two fewer games.

    It was another impressive showing for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who has been one of the underrated stars of this year’s Lightning team. Most of the attention has been directed to forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (and deservedly so!) but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the Lighting’s full-time starter, has been one of the best goalies in the league so far.

    Tuesday’s game was his third shutout of the season, and after his 32-save performance against the Blues his .933 save percentage is among the best in the NHL, while his 20 wins (in only 25 starts) are tops in the league. Nobody else in the league has more than 17.

    While Vasilevskiy was shining in net again, Kucherov scored his 21st goal of the season to move back into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the league. It was also his 42nd point which moved him into a tie with Stamkos for the league lead.

    Brayden Point also continued his breakout season by opening the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. He also added an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s third period goal.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    John Tortorella had no time for questions after blowout loss (Video)

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    Since being hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets John Tortorella has seemed to be a kinder, gentler coach.

    The blow ups and battles with the media don’t seem to happen as much. We don’t get as many rants.

    He just does not seem as angry all the time.

    Losing 7-2 at home to the Edmonton Oilers, however, might change a few things.

    That it was happened to the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night and Tortorella was in no mood to answer question about the game.

    His press conference consisted of him stepping to the podium, saying there is no point in answering questions about the game, then leaving.

    Here it is in all of its glory.

    The only question we have: Is this shorter than the night he said the New York Rangers “sucked from head to toe?”

    (Oddly enough, that game was also against the Edmonton Oilers).

    That press conference lasted, roughly, 14 seconds from the time he started talking until the time he walked away (and also included the line “I know you have a job to do”).

    Tonight’s comes in at just around 12 seconds. So we might have a record for the shortest John Tortorella press conference of all time.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

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    CALGARY, Alberta (AP) Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski has died at age 49, according to the Calgary Flames. No cause of death was given.

    Zalapski, a native of Edmonton, played 637 NHL games for Calgary, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1987 to 2000.

    He was with the Flames from 1993 to 1998.

    “We are proud that Zarley wore the Flames jersey, made Calgary his home following his playing career, represented our alumni executive and we will always remember him as a member of the Flames family,” Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King said Tuesday in a statement.

    “This is a terrible loss of a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey. We express our sincere condolences to the Zalapski family.”

    Zalapski was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

    He had 99 goals, 285 assists and 684 penalty minutes in the NHL. Zalapski was named to the all-rookie team in 1989 and participated in the NHL All-Star Game in 1993.

    Zalapski played stints in Austria and Switzerland after his NHL career and appeared in 11 games for the United Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Wings in 2004-05.

    He was the fourth overall pick by the Penguins in the 1986 entry draft.