Last 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.
Under 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.
Top 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.