Stars seek return to the big stage

Updated: October 19, 2009, 11:29 AM ET
By Richard Durrett |

When the Dallas Stars open the regular season against the Nashville Predators at 7 p.m. CT Saturday at American Airlines Center, it may seem a little like a new musical opening up on Broadway.

A new producer (general manager Joe Nieuwendyk) and director (coach Marc Crawford) will guide a cast of familiar faces mixed with up-and-coming talent. And as with any production, plenty of questions must be answered.

So before the curtain rises, let's take a look at the six big questions facing the Stars as they embark on the 2009-10 season and what they hope is a return to the postseason after missing out on that party last year.

Which Marty Turco will show up this season?

For the Stars to make a Stanley Cup playoff run, goaltender Marty Turco must be the star of the show. Turco was forced into a heavy workload last season and was not in elite-goalie form. He had a 2.81 goals-against average, 30th among goalies with at least 25 appearances. His .898 save percentage was tied for the lowest of his career. Injuries to the Stars' defense didn't help Turco. But he knows he must improve his play in 2009-10.

Turco is certainly capable. In 2007-08, he was 32-21-6 with a 2.31 GAA in leading the Stars to the Western Conference finals. Even if you include last season, he has a 2.26 career GAA and has made three All-Star games. But he has not won a Stanley Cup. The Turco who was making big saves and consistently keeping his team in games a few seasons ago is the one the Stars need if they want to return to the postseason.

How will new coach Marc Crawford's system work for the Stars?

Crawford was hired to bring a different voice and a more aggressive offensive system to Dallas. He is a commanding presence who can be unpredictable, keeping players on their toes. Crawford stresses puck possession and even encourages offensive players to take some chances and use their skill. That doesn't mean defense leaves the stage. But Crawford wants a high-tempo style that puts constant pressure on the opposing defense. It's more of an emphasis on the offensive end than the days of Dave Tippett and Ken Hitchcock. So it is an interesting change for the Stars.

If the system works, it could highlight the playmaking style of Mike Ribeiro, Mike Modano and Brad Richards. And it should be exciting for fans to watch. We'll see if a more entertaining brand of hockey also means more victories.

Can a young defense step up and produce?

It's one of the bigger questions to pop up this preseason. At times the last few weeks, defensive coverage has been a major issue for the Stars. The defensive unit had to adjust last season to the absence of Sergei Zubov, who was injured and played in just 10 games (all in November). He is now playing in Russia. Stephane Robidas is the club's No. 1 defenseman, but this group does not have big names or a bunch of NHL experience. There is talent, and Crawford must find the best way to assemble pairs and to keep this group from making too many mistakes. That means players like Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen, Mark Fistric and Nicklas Grossman must mature quickly.

What does Mike Modano have left in the tank?

He's 39 years old but can still skate circles around many younger players. He isn't the same guy who was putting up 80-90 points earlier in his career, but he had 57 points in 2007-08 and 46 points last season. For a guy making $2.25 million, that's a bargain. Modano remains one of this club's top faceoff guys and is a valuable part of the power play. In a system that is built on puck possession and an attacking style, Modano could put up better numbers than last season. Staying healthy and adjusting to the new system are keys to Modano's success. He's still an important part of this team.

Can the power play improve?

Dallas ranked 27th in the NHL in power-play percentage (15.7) last season, a severe drop-off from the previous few seasons. Injuries to power play quarterback Sergei Zubov and net crasher Brenden Morrow didn't help. Brad Richards will be asked to run the top unit from the point, with Modano handling the half-wall duty and Mike Ribeiro roaming around to find shooting lanes. Getting opportunities last season wasn't the main problem. The Stars were tied for 13th in power-play chances. They just couldn't cash them in. Crawford wants a unit that gets the puck in the offensive zone quickly and isn't afraid to take shots. It's tough to win games consistently when you don't take advantage of the power play.

Can Loui Eriksson and James Neal continue to score?

The two youngsters (Eriksson is 24, Neal is 22) led the Stars in goals last season. Eriksson had 36 and Neal 24. The Stars need both to score again, though hopefully with some more help (Mike Ribeiro was the only other Stars player with at least 20 goals). Eriksson was especially impressive, leading the team in plus/minus at 14 and takeaways with 80. The club's 2003 second-round pick (No. 33 overall) was also second among NHL leaders in shooting percentage (20.2). Neal, selected in the second round of the 2005 draft (also 33rd overall), led the team with nine power-play goals and was second in goals among NHL rookies. This year's club needs similar performances from both players.

Richard Durrett joined in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.