2011-2012 season preview: Dallas Stars

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2010-2011 record: 42-29-11, 95 points; 5th in Pacific, 9th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

It’s never a good thing when ownership is a major storyline around a team. For the last few seasons, the Dallas Stars ownership has been a problem as the team has and an internal budget and has not been able to spend money like they used to. After narrowly missing the playoffs and losing their most dynamic player, Dallas acquired a new coach and handful of players as they look to transform the face of their team. Needless to say: transition can be tough.

Offense

In recent years, the offense has been the strongest part of the Stars’ lineup. They started last season with James Neal, Brad Richards, and Loui Eriksson creating one of the most dangerous lines in the entire NHL. A year later, Richards is the newest multi-millionaire in on Broadway and Neal has long since been traded to Pittsburgh for help on the blue line. The Stars will ask Mike Ribeiro to move up in the lineup to top-line center with captain Brendan Morrow and newly acquired Michael Ryder on his wings. Loui Eriksson will play with 22-year-old budding star Jamie Benn on another scoring line — potentially with uber-pest Steve Ott. After the top two lines, there’s a huge drop off in offensive talent on the third and forth lines this season. What was a strength only a season ago could be the Achilles’ heel this year.

Defense

Unlike the offense, the Stars defense is in a better position that it was at this time last season. Stephane Robidas is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league and Alex Goligoski showed that he just needed some playing time after he was acquired from the Penguins. Niklas Grossman looks like a solid second pairing defenseman and Trevor Daley continues to tease with potential. Newcomers Sheldon Souray and Adam Pardy will fill depth roles and will join Mark Fistric as bottom pairing defenseman. The Stars bottom pairing guys were a liability at the beginning of last season. They shouldn’t be a huge problem this season.

Goalies

Kari Lehtonen had a breakout season last year proving that he was capable of carrying an NHL team for the majority of the season. The injury-plagued netminder appeared in 69 games last season and posted a decent 2.55 goals against and .914 save percentage. It wasn’t just his numbers that looked good – although they were good – it was the quality of the saves that he was able to make that made him so valuable to the Stars last season. On more than one night during the season, the Stars defense left Lehtonen alone to keep the team in the game. More often than not, he answered the bell. For that matter, Andrew Raycroft came in and showed that he can be an adequate back-up.

Coaching

Glen Gulutzan takes over for Marc Crawford behind the bench in Dallas. The first-time NHL coach has had great success in both the AHL (Texas Stars) and ECHL (Las Vegas Wranglers). Expect the Starts to play with much more defensive structure than they did while Crawford was at the helm. To a man, all of the players who played under him in Austin believe that he’s the right man for the job. Now it’s time to prove it.

Breakout candidate

Watch for Goligoski to take the Western Conference by storm this season. The ‘other guy’ in the James Neal trade showed in the second half that he has the potential to be a work-horse in Dallas. He’ll play big time minutes on the power play and his underrated defensive play will allow Gulutzan to play him in every situation. He never really got the chance to play extended minutes in Pittsburgh because of their depth on the blueline. He won’t have that problem in Dallas. Look for Goligoski to be among the top 10 in defensemen scoring this year.

Best-case scenario

The Stars can hope to have the same type of season that they just completed. They were in a playoff spot for the majority of the season and if it weren’t for a loss on the last day of the season, would have snuck into the 8th spot. Benn will have to step into a larger role this year and a full season with Goligoski will help solidify the blueline. If things fall right, the Stars may find themselves in the same position next April fighting for one of the last playoff spots.

Reality

Losing Richards creates a gigantic hole on the top line. There’s no other way to put it — a team that depended on their scoring last season lost their best scorer. The team challenged up until the last day of the season for a playoff spot last year, but this season looks like it could be a step backwards for the Stars. Look for them to finish fourth in the Pacific Division (an improvement from last season), but chances are they won’t be battling down the stretch for a playoff spot. Think less about the eighth or ninth seed and more along the lines of the 12th spot.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.