It's a new game for Stars in 2010-11
GM Nieuwendyk looks to rebuild winning attitude in post-Modano and Turco era
FRISCO, Texas -- Joe Nieuwendyk knew he had to be the one to climb on the Zamboni and resurface the Dallas Stars organization.
No one was going to do it for him. Mike Modano didn't skate off into retirement and wanted to play in Dallas. Goalie Marty Turco was a fan favorite and just a few years ago -- 2008 -- helped lead the Stars to the Western Conference Finals.
But Nieuwendyk, the Stars' second-year general manager, saw a stale group that didn't seem to be headed in the same direction. He saw an organization that had slipped and one that didn't resemble the squad that he played with in 1999 and won a Stanley Cup. The sustained level of success that Dallas fans enjoyed (and probably took for granted) for more than a decade was over.
"I wasn't happy with what this organization was and what this team looked like from the one that I left seven years ago," Nieuwendyk said. "Then, it was a business attitude and it was important to push hard for your teammate every day. We had to get back to that. We have some good young players. It's my job to put a group of guys together to have another great era."
But Nieuwendyk couldn't spend his way to 1999. He was given an internal budget that didn't allow for much flexibility when it came to free-agent spending. That's what happens when the club is up for sale. So he identified the core of young players he wanted to build the team around and made the effort to get them signed up longer term. Then he went about giving them the opportunity to lead.
They'll have to. Gone are veterans Modano and Turco as well as Jere Lehtinen, who isn't with the team but could end up returning in a few months if he feels like playing. That gives players such as Steve Ott, Stephane Robidas and even Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell the opportunity to step up and lead without worrying about whether they need to defer to the long-time Stars.
STARS SIX PACK
Six questions the Stars must answer this season, by ESPNDallas.com Stars blogger Mark Stepneski:.
1. Is Kari Lehtonen ready to be the guy in goal? The talent is there, but can he overcome the history of injuries, play a full season and perform to his potential? He sure looked good in the preseason, stopping 75 of the 77 shots he faced.
2. Will the defense improve? It was a sore spot last season and it looks like it will be the same group of defensemen this season, so can the group improve from within? The Stars believe their young defensemen are ready to take a step forward.
4. Can Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro bounce back? Both had down seasons in 2009-10. Can they regain their form and give the Stars a potent second scoring line? They were two of the Stars' best players in the preseason, and that's a good sign.
5. What happens with the ownership issues? The hope was the Stars would be sold by the start of this season, but it doesn't look like it will happen any time soon. As long as the ownership issue remains unresolved, the Stars will remain under a tight budget and GM Joe Nieuwendyk's hands are pretty much tied as far as upgrading the roster.
6. Can the Stars re-sign Brad Richards? He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and the Stars would like to sign him to an extension, but they can't do much until the ownership issue gets resolved. If this lingers until the trade deadline, the Stars could face a tough decision on whether to move Richards or risk losing him via free agency.
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Of course, the key team leader remains Brenden Morrow. He's the captain and didn't have the type of 2009-10 season he wanted. Morrow was coming off knee surgery, dealing with the pressure of trying to make the Canadian Olympic team (he would end up winning a gold medal) and wondering whether two of his closest friends on the team -- Modano and Turco -- would return. All of it seemed to effect Morrow, who didn't look like the same, consistent player he's been for most of his career.
"There was a lot going on last year with my neighbor and friend and questioning whether they would be coming back and struggling, at times, personally with my game and not winning," Morrow said.
"If you're winning, everything is easy and fun. When you're losing, it's the exact opposite. It's a grind every day and it's tough coming to the rink. It weighs on you. We had two years in a row of not making the playoffs since the success of '08 and that's what drives us."
Morrow, though, sees a difference already in this Stars bunch. So do others inside the dressing room during training camp and preseason games.
"It's a complete different mentality," said Ott, who admitted that he sometimes "doesn't know when to shut up" and that he can be the vocal leader to help Morrow out.
"There's a young, refreshed look," Ott continued. "Everybody wants to be here to practice and practice hard and continue to work together. The leadership comes collectively instead of individually now, and guys are pushing each other and holding each other accountable. You can see that now. You don't have young guys coming in and maybe feeling intimidated by older guys. Everybody is loud, everybody is speaking and everybody is comfortable with each other."
That's exactly what Nieuwendyk wants to hear. But he knows simply changing the attitude won't bring a Stanley Cup back to Dallas. The organization must show patience in its young players and let them grow.
It's a similar approach to what Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels did. He, like Nieuwendyk, had financial constraints. But he committed to staying patient and letting the young players make mistakes and learn from them.
"I think it's forced us -- and it's not a bad thing -- to be patient with some things," Nieuwendyk said. "I don't wake up thinking I'm limited. I wake up energized and look at this as a great challenge. I'm not so concerned about our payroll. That will get resolved and we'll get feelings from a new owner about what he wants to do."
Patience is what it's going to take from Nieuwendyk, coach Marc Crawford and the fans. It isn't in Nieuwendyk's personality to set any goal other than winning a Cup for his team, despite the fact that the playoffs have been MIA around here for two years.
But realistically, making the playoffs and showing steady improvement would be a challenging yet attainable goal.
One big reason Nieuwendyk believes his team is good enough to get there is goalie Kari Lehtonen. In hockey, more than most sports, one position can hide a lot of flaws. On the ice, that's the guy in net. Lehtonen, acquired just prior to the trade deadline, is coming off a couple of back surgeries and hasn't stayed healthy.
But when he has played, he's shown the ability to make key saves and keep his team in games.
"His commitment level is high," Nieuwendyk said. "He has special skills at his position. He has the skills to be an elite goaltender. I think that's clear. I don't think he understood how hard he had to prepare himself early in his career. Now that he's been given a second chance at becoming that type of goalie, he's taking it very seriously."
It's the type of work ethic this young Stars bunch is showing even before the season starts. And the coach expects it to continue.
"These guys are putting in the work, and that will be critical as the season starts and progresses," Crawford said. "Our leaders have to step up and they are doing that, starting with Brenden. He's able to worry about making sure the team is doing what it can do, and the younger guys aren't looking over their shoulders wondering what Mike or Marty might do because they aren't here. They're learning and will continue to do so, but they are hungry to win."
It's that hunger that Nieuwendyk felt was missing. The question that will begin to get answered this season is if it has, in fact, returned and whether the foundation is in place to start a new winning era of Stars hockey.