Old Stars get younger and remain strong

Ross McKeon

The Dallas Stars were a good hockey team that just got better last season, and they have the potential to continue their upwardly mobile rise this season.

In other words, if all goes well, the Stars are a Stanley Cup contender.

Those are lofty expectations for a franchise that looked on the brink of possibly undergoing an overhaul with the early-season firing of general manager Doug Armstrong in November. Dallas was a .500 team at the time, still too dependent on aging stars, and the franchise was taking a gamble by being the only team in the league to split the GM job between two men, Les Jackson and Brett Hull.

But the new leaders in upper management were patient, did their homework and turned a major deal at the trade deadline to acquire Brad Richards from Tampa Bay. Richards' arrival, combined with the emergence of Mike Ribeiro and youngsters on defense, signaled a change. And when Dallas survived a long stretch without No. 1 defenseman Sergei Zubov, the team gained confidence.

The feeling went deep into the postseason, where goalie Marty Turco took an NHL team where he had never been, silencing the critics along the way with impressive successive-round wins over rivals Anaheim and San Jose. The only thing that stopped the Stars was the eventual Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

The Stars, however, did not sit back and feel content about exceeding last season's expectations. Instead, Jackson and Hull continued to tweak the roster in an attempt to implement a plan moving forward.

First, Dallas raised some eyebrows by winning out on the Fabian Brunnstrom sweepstakes. Brunnstrom, 23, is a late-blooming Swede who has been tearing it up overseas. He was pursued by most NHL teams, and many considered Detroit the front-runner to land his services. Dallas won out in the end.

The other interesting acquisition is controversial forward Sean Avery, who figures to make things interesting on and off the ice in Big D. Imagine what a pain it will be to face a team that includes Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott and Avery – three of the best combination agitator-scorers in the league.

The secret weapon here, too, might be coach Dave Tippett. Very quietly, the Stars have recorded the second-best winning percentage in hockey since the lockout (.642). The team never has finished worse than sixth in goals-against average or shots-against average in Tippett's five seasons, and he owns the best winning percentage among active head coaches (.632).

Last season: 45-30-7, 97 points, third place Pacific Division, fifth place Western Conference. A playoff qualifier for the 10th time in 11 seasons, the Stars shed the label of perennial first-round loser by first knocking off fourth-seeded division rival and defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim, then ran up a 3-0 lead on Pacific champ San Jose before eliminating the Sharks in six. Dallas reached the conference finals for the first time 2000 but lost in six games to eventual champ Detroit.

Imports: LW Sean Avery (2007-08 team: New York Rangers), RW Fabian Brunnstrom (Sweden), D Garrett Stafford (Detroit Red Wing), RW Landon Wilson (Switzerland), RW Lauri Tukonen (Los Angeles Kings).

Exports: RW Antti Miettinen (Minnesota Wild), LW Niklas Hagman (Toronto Maple Leafs), D Mattias Norstrom (retired), LW Brad Winchester (St. Louis Blues), D Nolan Baumgartner (Vancouver Canucks), C Stu Barnes (retired), G Johan Holmqvist (Sweden), LW Richard Clune (Los Angeles Kings), LW Marty Sertich (Colorado Avalanche),

Three keys to the season: Goalie Marty Turco has been good; there's no reason to think he won't be again. But he really has no choice. This team is very dependant on not only his puck-stopping ability but also in the way he can help the defense with his aggressive and effective handling of the puck. Promising goalie Mike Smith was sacrificed as part of the deal to acquire the very important piece in Richards, and now Turco likely will be backed up by the inexperienced Tobias Stephan, a second-round pick and 24-year-old with only minor-league experience. The 33-year-old, who never has lacked for confidence, exorcized some personal demons by escaping the first round of the playoffs in the spring.

Second, the emergence of a young blue line must continue its upward trend. Matt Niskanen, Niklas Grossman and Mark Fistric might not be household names quite yet, but the Stars know these are three young players who are blending very nicely with veterans Stephane Robidas, Philippe Boucher, Trevor Daly and Zubov and give Dallas the look of being a very strong team from the goal out.

Third, a dozen Stars had career years last season, but it can't end there. There's pretty good balance on Dallas' forward lines with especially good depth at center ice – Ribeiro, Richards, Mike Modano and Ott from one through four on the depth chart. The onus will be on the wingers to hold up their end of the bargain. Jere Lehtinen was injured for a lot of last season, and he's penciled in at first-line right wing. Loui Eriksson emerged as a top-six winger. Morrow and Avery must provide goals on the left side. If all four wingers are simply productive – not world-beaters – the Stars will be a team in contention.

On the hot seat: After an amazing debut with five points in his first game as a Star, Richards struggled to fit with his new team until enjoying modest success in the postseason. Dallas won only three of the 12 games in which Richards appeared at the end of the regular season. This is not to suggest the tailspin was Richards' fault, but it didn't help the integration process. Richards is a big piece of the puzzle. His second-line center role, executed properly, means Modano can continue to age gracefully and not feel like he has to be as productive as he was 10 years ago. Richards, too, is a big piece for the future, so building some early chemistry and confidence will be key.

Poised to blossom: Brunnstrom might not be able to live up to all the hype, but one of the league's more anticipated debuts will not be asked to play more than a third- or fourth-line role at the outset of the season. He appears capable of jumping in with double-figure goal-scoring if given the ice time. Brunnstrom is 6-foot-1 and quick on his skates. He scored 73 points in 41 games in lower-level play in Sweden and then added 37 points in 54 games when moved up. The Stars will be patient with Brunnstrom, who will have nothing handed to him. But with the team's depth, Brunnstrom should get an opportunity to play with talent and excel on his own merit.

Analysis and prediction: Dallas has transformed itself from an aging team dependent on the same few veterans to one that has a new core of young stars in seamless fashion, much like their nemesis Detroit Red Wings. There's room for individual growth, and that will translate into more team success. The Stars are very much among the elite in the West, and that means they are a contender for the Cup.