Stars have to be creative to improve
Without financial flexibility, it will be a challenge for Nieuwendyk to fill holes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday without an appearance from the Dallas Stars, who didn't earn an invitation for the second consecutive season.
A non-postseason streak is a rarity for the organization, which hasn't missed the playoffs two straight years since the team moved from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993.
"It's not where we want to be," general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. "No one is happy about not making the playoffs for two years. We have some good, young players and guys that are hungry. We just have to find the consistency."
Nieuwendyk, who just completed his first season on the job, must remake the club without the luxury of additional funding. Owner Tom Hicks has put the Stars up for sale, but no one is certain when the "sold" sign will appear. And even when it does, the club has committed to reducing season-ticket prices in an effort to build back the fan base. So any new owner is unlikely to have enough of a revenue stream to boost payroll considerably in the short term.
That leaves Nieuwendyk to approach the offseason as if the budget is the same for 2010-11, which means about $45 million. He almost certainly won't be paying goalie Marty Turco next season, but that money is tied up in raises to several players on new contracts. Defenseman Stephane Robidas and forwards Steve Ott, Toby Petersen and Tom Wandell all signed contracts during the season.
For Nieuwendyk to address the club's needs -- starting with defense -- he will probably have to do it via trades.
"We'll look at any way we can to make the team better," said Nieuwendyk, who will meet with his pro scouts and his front office staff later this week to begin offseason work.
What are the biggest areas that need improvement? What did Nieuwendyk like and dislike this season? Let's go through each position, from the net on out.
Turco is an unrestricted free agent, and the chances of him staying in Dallas are extremely remote. After struggling in 2008-09, Turco's numbers this past season weren't much better. He just hasn't been the same goalie that led the club to the Western Conference Finals in 2008 and put together some memorable seasons during his time in Dallas. Maybe a change of scenery will spark the 34-year-old.
With a young defense, the Stars needed the goaltending position to be a point of strength to have success, and it wasn't on a consistent basis.
Nieuwendyk signaled a new era in goal for the Stars by trading for Kari Lehtonen just before the Olympic break, sending defenseman prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick to Atlanta. It was a risky trade because Lehtonen hadn't played an NHL game since the previous April after undergoing two back surgeries.
"I knew he could be a No. 1," Nieuwendyk said. "I saw the things he did in Atlanta when he was healthy. I just felt like we were giving this kid a second chance. He's come in with a great attitude."
Nieuwendyk feels Lehtonen has shown an ability to make big saves, and his play the last month has given the organization a reason to believe that he can handle the starting job next season.
"He's big, he's fluid and he's a shot blocker," Nieuwendyk said. "Technically, he's makes it look easy. He works hard and keeps getting better."
And as a restricted free agent, he's a much cheaper option than Turco, who made $5.5 million. The Stars could certainly continue to check the market and bring in other young netminders who could challenge Lehtonen or compete for the backup spot. That could be someone like minor leaguers Matt Climie and Brent Krahn.
"We have to figure out if one of those guys is ready or if we bring in a veteran guy," Nieuwendyk said.
The blue line is where this team needs the most help. That isn't to say it doesn't have some good defenseman that can push forward next season. Stephane Robidas has proven he can play on a top pair. But the team lacks a big-time defenseman that can stabilize the unit and allow other guys to fall into slots that better suit them, so that they aren't under pressure to do too much. Finding a top-level defenseman is a priority.
"No. 1s are hard to come by, and so are No. 2s," Nieuwendyk said. " I would like to get a defenseman that can blend in with our mix and is a top guy. That would be what we would like to do."
For a team strapped for cash, that's not as simple as getting involved in a bidding war for a free agent. It could mean dealing away an established player with trade value. With depth at center, Mike Ribeiro would certainly fall into that category. But Nieuwendyk has to find the right team and the right defenseman to make a trade work. That will be a challenge. But it's not unlike what Hicks' other team, the Texas Rangers, had to do this past offseason in trading No. 1 pitcher Kevin Millwood to free up space to sign other players needed to bolster the team. Nieuwendyk may have to follow a similar pattern.
"You look at the teams that have top guys, and it's obvious that when you have them it makes a difference," Nieuwendyk said. "They can play 23 or 24 minutes and bring so much to the team. You're not asking Robidas to play 25 minutes and do everything for you."
Nieuwendyk's eyes light up when he starts talking about the Stars' talent at forward. He's anticipating that James Neal will keep improving and Brenden Morrow will be more productive in his second season after knee surgery. And that's just a start.
"Steve Ott is going to become a terrific leader on this team. The growth and development of a lot of our people will make us better. Loui Eriksson brings the work ethic, and having Tom Wandell back will have a big impact. There are a lot of good pieces in place with that group."
That includes the center position. The club witnessed the emergence of Jamie Benn, a young player who showed a high hockey IQ and the ability to create space and find scoring opportunities. He started the season at wing but moved to center.
"I like Jamie Benn at center," Nieuwendyk said. "He's proven to us that he's very capable of playing center or wing. You know, he could probably even play defense. But we have a lot of strength at the center position."
That includes Brad Richards, who scored a team-high 91 points in his first full season with the Stars. The 29-year-old has another year left on his hefty contract that pays him $7.5 million per season. Assuming he's a 90-point player again, Richards could command a long-term deal that pays at least $6 million on the open market after the 2010-11 season. The Stars may not be able to afford that, but Nieuwendyk said the club wants to talk with his agent.
Ribeiro still has three more years on his contract at $5 million a season. He was fourth on the team in points despite missing a month after he was hit in the throat with a stick. Both players represent difficult decisions. Ribeiro could be shipped in an attempt to get a defenseman. But the Stars could also explore the trade market for Richards should they feel that can't re-sign him.
"But those are two big-time players that can help us next year as well," Nieuwendyk said. "You throw in Benn, Tom Wandell and Toby Petersen, who can play anywhere, and you've got some good players there."
The Stars must also decide if Mike Modano fits into the forward mix. He played mainly on the fourth line in 2009-10, and the team wants to see more of what Benn and Wandell can do on the power play next season. It's difficult to see a fit for Modano now, but that can change based on trades.
Jere Lehtinen is an unrestricted free agent but remains a solid two-way forward. He has the ability to play with nearly any line, making him someone the club would like to have back.
"He had a tough summer last year with the hip surgery, so I think he'll be a little healthier this offseason," Nieuwendyk said. "He's battled for a lot of years in a Dallas Stars uniform. It's important to find out where he is. I think he's still a terrific player. The offensive numbers may not be there, but he doesn't make mistakes."
An important factor when making these offseason decisions is how it impacts the dressing room and the kind of winning culture Nieuwendyk is attempting to create. One thing that disappointed Nieuwendyk and his staff was inability of the team to win three straight games all season.
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"It's a difficult thing to play in the NHL," Nieuwendyk said. "It takes a huge commitment. That's what we have to realize and that's one thing we've learned this year. There's no room for error, especially in the Western Conference. You can't have dry spells in this conference. The competition is too tough."
Nieuwendyk wants players that realize "how important it is to wear a Dallas Stars uniform."
"The culture that I'm trying to create is what the players want, to lay it on the line for one another," Nieuwendyk said. "We do have a lot of good pieces and we're going to be a good hockey club and we have a lot of people that care about each other. That's what it's all about. We have to believe in one another."
It takes leadership to make that a success. And the club has some of those leaders in Morrow, Richards, Robidas and others. Turco and Modano have been big parts of the leadership group for years. But if both aren't back next season, that may allow some of the younger players to speak up and seize more responsibility inside the dressing room.
Nieuwendyk hired Marc Crawford to create a more offensive, exciting style and to change the voice in the dressing room.
"I look back at the first 15 to 20 games and there were so many people excited about the way we were playing," Nieuwendyk said. "But we have to find balance in that when it comes to defending. I don't think we ever said we would be a run-and-gun team, though it was talked about that way. I'm all in favor of playing the high-tempo game. But we have to make sure we defend too."
Nieuwendyk said he was pleased with how his coach handled his first season, but that he wants to address two key areas of concern: giving up goals and the penalty kill.
"The penalty kill is a concern," Nieuwendyk said. "We just weren't good enough in that area."
The penalty kill was near the bottom of the league for most of the season, finishing 27th overall. Dallas' success rate at killing off penalties was only 77.4 percent. Only Nashville was worse in the Western Conference.