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Big questions in Big D

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The Dallas Stars stumbled last season, partly because of injury, also due to players not living up to past performance and, of course, the whole Sean Avery(notes) fiasco didn't help. And it was a costly fall, indeed.

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New GM Joe Nieuwendyk(notes) and new coach Marc Crawford hope to shake up the Stars.
(LM Otero/Associated Press)

Decisions were quick and hard as a result – co-general managers Les Jackson and Brett Hull were relieved of their roles and reassigned in the organization. Well-respected coach Dave Tippett, awarded a two-year extension through the 2010-11 season the previous summer, was summarily fired. Ex-player Joe Nieuwendyk was the surprise replacement in the GM chair, and Marc Crawford was the choice behind the bench after Nieuwendyk fired Tippett less than a week on the job.

The roster, with the exception of defenseman Sergei Zubov(notes) leaving for his native Russia, is largely unchanged. Basically, the Stars are counting on fewer injuries from a roster they trust, and the changes to the front office and coaching staff will ignite a new direction and voice for the organization to experience.

They say everything in Texas is big, and the Stars have done nothing short of living up to that motto since arriving 16 seasons ago from Minnesota. While in Dallas, the team reached the playoffs in all but three seasons, achieved the Stanley Cup Finals twice while winning once (1999) and appeared in at least the conference finals four times.

Dallas fans don't take success for granted, but they do expect it from one of the league's most consistent franchises the better part of two decades. Nieuwendyk was a member of the Stars for seven of his 20 seasons spent in the league, including the two years Dallas played for the Stanley Cup.

Young enough to still be playing it seems, the 43-year-old Nieuwendyk made a quick rise through the management ranks. He was a special consultant to the GM in Florida, the last of five teams for which he played, and was an assistant GM in Toronto as recently as last season.

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Daley

A Cornell graduate, Nieuwendyk also has a law degree. It was assumed he'd be in the position to run a hockey team some day, especially considering his success on the ice, the leadership he displayed and his education.

Ownership felt the team had become complacent and needed a renewed hunger. Nieuwendyk impressed from his first interview and now inherits the reins of a team that's in the same division as last year's Presidents' Trophy winners (San Jose), an Anaheim team that's only three years removed from winning the Cup and a team on the rise (Los Angeles).

Last season: 36-35-11 (83 points), third place Pacific Division, 12th in the Western Conference and 23rd in the overall standings. The Stars missed out on the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in six seasons and only the second time in 13 years.

Imports: D Jeff Woywitka(notes) (St. Louis), D Karlis Skrastins(notes) (Florida), G Alex Auld(notes) (Ottawa), C Warren Peters(notes) (Flames).

Exports: Co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull, coach Dave Tippett, D Sergei Zubov (Russian hockey league), C Brendan Morrison(notes) (Washington), C Steve Begin(notes) (Boston), RW Joel Lundqvist(notes) (Sweden).

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Lehtinen

Re-signings: RW Jere Lehtinen(notes).

Salary cap: The Stars are comfortably under the ceiling with approximately $48.7 million committed, giving the team about $10.5 million of a pad. However, team owner Tom Hicks was reportedly dealing with financial difficulties in a number of his non-hockey holdings, so exactly how much more is available in the budget is the big unknown. One report suggests the Stars are already over budget, the team not expected to exceed $45 million in payroll for the season.

Three keys: Poor health was a real problem for the team last season (379 man games lost), and three players – forwards Brenden Morrow(notes) (knee), Brad Richards(notes) (hand, wrist) and Jere Lehtinen (groin, shoulder) – have to show last year's bad luck will not repeat.

Morrow has been the heart and soul of the team since being named captain in 2006, but that was under Tippett. We'll see if Morrow is still the kind of captain Crawford is looking for in what will be a different style attack.

Richards could benefit, too, from Crawford's tactics. Richards is a good skater, versatile and can be used in all situations. He seemed to struggle with consistency and his role under Tippett. At age 36, Lehtinen isn't the same threat that made him one of the most respected two-way forwards during his prime, but he is still an important cog in Dallas' mix.

Second, it's going to be offense by committee on the Stars blue line now that one of the last decade's most efficient and productive players in Zubov is gone. For years he quarterbacked a difficult power play to defend, and was that special No. 1 defenseman with high-end offensive skills that are very difficult to find.

This year's top seven at the position – Stephane Robidas(notes), Trevor Daley(notes), Matt Niskanen(notes), Niklas Grossman, Karlis Skrastins, Mark Fistric(notes) and Jeff Woywitka – combined to score 25 goals last season (Skrastins and Woywitka were with different teams). Younger defenders in the organization have an offensive profile, so someone might get fast-tracked.

Third, the Stars are going to have to learn Crawford's system quickly and adjust to Nieuwendyk's demands on the fly. Dallas got buried in the early season standings last season and, despite a decent midseason run, couldn't overcome the physical demands needed to maintain it down the stretch.

More and more teams are changing their systems to adapt to the faster, more aggressive tendencies that the successful teams display since the end of the lockout. It doesn't pay to sit back, chase the puck or necessarily always wait for the other team to make a mistake. The Stars could always rely on goaltending, penalty killing, etc., to stay in games, but that philosophy will change with the new regime.

On the hot seat: Marty Turco(notes) was dreadful at the start of last season, and his struggles really came out of nowhere considering he was coming off of a splendid postseason the year before. He's due to make $5.4 million in the final year of his contract this season, which makes it a pivotal year for the 34-year-old who knows in the back of his mind he could be dealt at the trade deadline if the Stars are not in contention.

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Mike Modano(notes) embarks on his 20th NHL season, and it might be his last.
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

In retrospect, the Stars didn't feel they had enough in terms of reliable backups for Turco, and he had to play through the difficult stretches as opposed to getting more time off to allow him to fix things in practice. Dallas feels like it has rectified the goaltending scenario by signing Alex Auld as Turco's primary backup, which should allow Tobias Stephan(notes) to develop appropriately without the feeling of being rushed.

Poised to blossom: Trevor Daley has spent four full seasons in the league, and his numbers haven't improved much from one season to the next (career highs in goals and points last season with seven and 25, respectively). But the combination of Zubov leaving and Crawford favoring a more up-tempo, skating game could work to the 25-year-old's advantage. Look for Daley to get more minutes and special teams play with a strong preseason showing.

Time has passed: Mike Modano is far from the player he was in his prime, but that's not to say he can't contribute to Dallas' success. Modano can still skate, but his role has dramatically changed from when he was a first-line center expected to produce at a point-per-game clip.

Now Modano is seen as a third-line checker, counted on to neutralize an opposing top or second line and to kill penalties. The greatest U.S.-born skater in the NHL is 39 years old, playing in his 20th NHL season – all for the same franchise – and in the final year of his contract. He hasn't announced it, but it sure sounds like this could be the final season of his Hall of Fame career.

Prediction: Dallas' "off-year" might actually have been a harbinger of things to come, at least until more young blood can get infused into the roster. The Stars appear pretty decent up front, but the defense might not be able to skate as well as Crawford needs and Turco remains a big wild card.

The interesting thing to watch here is what kind of respect Crawford will earn. It's no secret he wasn't the favorite coach of some players in Vancouver and Los Angeles, his previous stops. He'll need everyone on board to make this work. Third place in the division wasn't good enough to reach the postseason last season, and it won't be good enough this season again.