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By Pierre LeBrun
If there's a mystery team in the Western Conference, it must surely be the Stars. Were injuries alone the reason for their collapse last season? Will being healthy again be enough to bring them back to being the contender that reached the Western Conference finals two seasons ago? What impact will new coach Marc Crawford have on the team? Will Marty Turco rebound in goal?
Because all of all these questions, few teams have had more variance in their preseason predictions, where they've been placed anywhere from fourth to 12th in the West.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Stars this season:
Get the latest updates and rumors on the Stars from Richard Durrett's blog. ESPNDallas.com
1. No wholesale changes
New GM Joe Nieuwendyk didn't come in full guns blazing. He's taking stock before eventually making his moves. The only notable offseason departures were forwards Brendan Morrison and Mark Parrish and former all-star blueliner Sergei Zubov, while the new guys on the scene are defenseman Karlis Skrastins and backup goalie Alex Auld.
"Zubie is a big one being gone, especially for the power play," Stars captain Brenden Morrow told ESPN.com. "He wasn't healthy for us the last couple of years, but we're going to miss that presence on the power play. But the group that we have when healthy, we're pretty confident in what we have right now. A lot's going to ride on Marty's shoulders and getting off to a hot start. We need to build momentum early because last year was a lot of frustration."
2. Staying healthy
The Stars were crippled by long-term injuries to key players last season (Morrow, Zubov, Brad Richards and Steve Ott, among others). The belief in their dressing room is that just by having those players back healthy is like adding two or three big-name free agents. And there's confidence a healthy Stars team can regain the form from two seasons ago when they reached the Western Conference finals.
"We feel we can be that team again -- we feel we're not that far away from it," said Morrow. "I feel healthy; I think I'll be able to contribute and do a lot more than I did last year. I know Brad Richards feels much the same way. He worked real hard all summer.
"We've got guys coming off great seasons like Loui Ericksson and Steve Ott. We've got a lot of things going for us. If we can stay healthy and get off to a good start and get some momentum going, I think we'll have a good push."
3. Good ol' Marty?
Marty Turco sported a 2.81 goals-against average and .898 save percentage last season, the worst numbers of his eight-year NHL career. But word is the 34-year-old netminder worked his butt off all summer and has looked great in camp. He also has a new goalie coach, Mike Valley, and likes him a lot. Turco will make $5.4 million in the final year of his contract, and unrestricted free agency looms next summer. This is a huge season for Turco.
4. A new system
With a new coach comes a new system.
"I think [Crawford] still wants our defensive instincts to take over, but he's really pushing our D to jump into the play, and we really haven't had that," Morrow said in explaining Crawford's plan of attack. "We had always relied on our forwards to do the driving and the net drive. He wants three guys driving -- it doesn't matter whether you're a forward or a D, but then you've got the fourth guy high in the slot. It's a system that's had a lot of success with [Mike] Babcock in Detroit. It's a big change for us, but I think for our group of D, they're good skaters, it's going to benefit them and also our team in the long run."
5. Blue-line questions
There are few better stories around the NHL than the rise to prominence of Stephane Robidas, a 32-year-old who was waived and discarded like week-old leftovers earlier in his career before breaking through in Dallas. Having said that, the fact he's the No. 1 defenseman on this team speaks to possible lack of depth at the position. Or, perhaps, younger players such as Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen and Niklas Grossman will make the most of the opportunity. Daley, for one, may get more power-play time than ever and may get to push more at even strength under Crawford's new system. He could be a sleeper.
6. Solid up front
If the blue line has question marks, the forward group should be just fine. Forward lines change all the time, but at this point, figure on Mike Ribeiro centering the top unit between Morrow and sophomore Fabian Brunnstrom; Richards will pivot the second line, likely between Loui Eriksson and perhaps James Neal; a third line could see Mike Modano between Ott and savvy veteran Jere Lehtinen. Not too bad at all. Of that group of nine, Brunnstrom has the most to prove. He came over here with a lot of hype and must show more consistency in his second NHL season.
7. The buck stops here
Stars owner Tom Hicks has reportedly stretched himself a little too thin financially thanks to his English football endeavors with Liverpool. His baseball team (Texas Rangers) is up for sale; but you wonder, if he can't find a buyer there, will the Stars be next on the block. Either way, it's been chop, chop on the Stars' payroll. After being among the NHL's highest-spending clubs for more than a decade, Dallas will have a payroll in the $45 million to $48 million range this season, about $10 million under the cap.
The Stars ranked 14th in league attendance last season, which isn't too bad at all. But it was their lowest ranking in eight years (2000-01). Is there a softening of the market? After the NFL's Cowboys, three other teams scrap it out for the rest of the entertainment dollar. Morrow said the team must prove itself to the fans.
"I think we got to go out and get results for them to use us as their entertainment, otherwise they're going to choose whatever is hotter, between us and the Mavericks," said Morrow. "It's up to us to go out and play good hockey, get results early and get people here excited about hockey again."
9. A scheduling note
In the month of March, the Stars play a whopping 16 games (March 2-31) in 30 days!
10. Olympic exposure
As many as eight Stars could be Olympic-bound, and that's not even counting Richards, who was a surprise omission from Canada's camp: Brunnstrom (Sweden), Grossman (Sweden), Skrastins (Latvia), Robidas (Canada), Morrow (Canada), Modano (USA), Lehtinen (Finland) and Eriksson (Sweden). That's five different countries represented in that group. Cue the dressing-room banter!
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 36-35-11
• Division: Third in the Pacific
• Conference: 12th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Stars will be right on that playoff bubble all season long and fall just short, placing one point out in ninth place. They'll also place fourth in the ultracompetitive Pacific Division.
• Crawford returns to the fold after previous coaching stops in Colorado, Vancouver and Los Angeles. He'll be heavier-handed with the players than his predecessor, Dave Tippett.
"We had that comfort of [Tippett] knowing you and what to expect of you," said Morrow. "So everyone is out there fighting for ice time now. We've got a new system that we're trying to get ingrained in us. We're trying to break old habits and trying to get that skeleton of what Crow is trying to ingrain in us."
F -- Brenden Morrow
• The 30-year-old Stars captain played only 18 games last season after producing a career-high 74 points the season before.
F -- Mike Ribeiro
• Has averaged 80.5 points the last two seasons. Why did Montreal let this guy go again?
F -- Fabian Brunnstrom
• The 24-year-old Swede produced 17 goals in 55 games in his rookie NHL season and more is expected from him this year.
D -- Stephane Robidas
• A surprise Canadian Olympic camp invite, but a deserved recognition of his ascent.
D -- Niklas Grossman
• Just coming into his own at 24 and coming off a career-high 81 games played last season.
Best Bet: Brenden Morrow, F: Morrow is a top fantasy performer when healthy, but unfortunately that isn't very often. Two of his past three seasons have been at least 50 percent lost to injury and, although he should be ready for training camp, ACL surgery can be tough to recover from. Morrow can be nearly a point-per-game player with great peripheral stats, and should he continue to look healthy and recovered in the preseason, move him up in your rankings.
Risky Move: Mike Ribeiro, F: Ah, yet another forward with deceiving value. Ribeiro could very well score 80 points this season and still be a No. 5 or No. 6 fantasy forward in the ESPN scoring. As an assist man he loses out on goals, power-play markers and shots on goal. While Ribeiro does earn extra value in the assist category, the Stars aren't going to nurture his plus/minus this season, either. Consider him a specialist at the draft table if your team is short on helpers, but don't overpay for his 80-point potential.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Dallas Stars finish this season in Pacific Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.