The Dallas Stars came within two victories of challenging for the Stanley Cup last season, but they weren’t quite satisfied with that finish.
Looking to build off of a deep postseason run, the Stars open 2008-09 on Friday night with a home matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hope reach the playoffs for the first time in team history.
Dallas (45-30-7), which has won six straight home openers, opened 7-7-3 last season, a mark that led to the firing of general manager Doug Armstrong. Under co-GMs Brett Hull and Les Jackson, the team bounced back and clinched a fifth consecutive postseason berth with a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference.
The Stars reached the conference finals for the first time since 2000, but were ousted in six games by eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit.
One of the biggest moves Hull and Jackson made to strengthen the Stars ahead of the postseason was acquiring playmaking center Brad Richards from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. Richards, who totaled 20 goals and 62 points with both clubs, contributed three goals and 15 points during the playoffs.
He’ll reunite with Mike Ribeiro, who signed a five-year contract extension following a breakout season in which he totaled career highs in goals (27), assists (56) and a team-leading points (83). Captain Brenden Morrow emerged as an offensive force, posting single-season bests with 32 goals and 74 points.
The trio combined with 19-year pro Mike Modano (21 goals, 57 points) as Dallas finished among the NHL’s highest-scoring clubs with 237 goals.
That offense was complimented by a defense that gave up 204 goals behind veteran goaltender Marty Turco, who went 32-21-6 with a 2.31 goals-against average in 62 games. He also helped the Stars kill 85.6 percent of their penalties - the second-best average in the league.
“I think you always work to help your team reach the top, and that includes getting guys to play their best and remain healthy,” Jackson told the league’s official Web site. “It’s a matter of taking the group of players we have and putting them in a situation where they can be complementary and produce.”
The offseason was highlighted by the signing of forward Sean Avery to a four-year, $15.5 million contract in July. Avery, among the game’s best agitators, had 15 goals and 33 points for the New York Rangers, but was limited to 57 games because of injuries to his shoulder, wrist, hand and spleen.
“His skill level is getting better and better, year by year,” Hull said. “That, with his grit, his toughness, his ability to win, I just thought it was a no-brainer to have him in our lineup.”
Dallas did lose defenseman Mattias Norstrom to retirement in June, and is expected to be without fellow defenseman Sergei Zubov for the first few weeks of the season as he continues to recover from hip surgery.
Zubov is one of the holdovers from the Stars’ 1998-99 championship season, when Ken Hitchcock was behind the bench. The coach is looking to make a similar run as he begins his second full season at the helm for the Blue Jackets, who have yet to make a playoff appearance.
Columbus (34-36-12), entering its eighth year of existence, fell a win shy of the team record but established a franchise best with 80 points last season.
Improvement will be difficult for the Blue Jackets unless they can improve on an offense that managed a dismal 190 goals last season - the league’s second-lowest total.
Columbus lost Nikolai Zherdev (26 goals, 61 points) as part of four-player trade to the Rangers, but will have high-scoring Rick Nash back after he posted team-highs in goals (38) and points (69) in 2007-08.
The Blue Jackets hope they have provided Nash with enough help by signing forwards R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius to four-year contracts. Umberger had 13 goals and a career-high 50 points in 74 games for Philadelphia, while Huselius had 25 goals and 66 points with Calgary.
“As coaches we all get excited because it’s a new year, but the players know when you’re legitimately competitive or not, and the players we have coming back know exactly what we have done and they are really jacked up,” Hitchcock said.
Columbus’ offense may have struggled last season, but its defense was among the best, tying Minnesota for eighth in the league with 210 goals allowed.
Those impressive numbers were strengthened by the performance of goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who went 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA in 54 games. He finished second in the NHL with nine shutouts.
Columbus, which will play three straight on the road before returning home on Oct. 17, is 7-18-3 all-time versus the Stars. The Blue Jackets lost the first three contests of last season’s series before a 4-2 victory in Dallas on Jan. 22.