Will Stars fall in '03-04?

For the first time in a long time, the Stars aren't active in free agency. What does that mean for next season?

Updated: August 19, 2003, 8:15 PM ET
By Mike Heika | Special to ESPN.com

With all due respect to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Dallas Stars feel they blew it last season. After Detroit and Colorado were dispatched in the first round of the playoffs, the Stars believed an opportunity that doesn't come often in sports was laid before them

2002-03 BY THE NUMBERS
Record: 46-17-15-4, 111 pts. (2nd overall, 1st West, 1st Pacific); Home: 28-5-6-2; Road: 18-12-9-2
Goals for/Avg.:
245/2.99 (6th overall)
Goals against/Avg.:
169/2.06 (3rd overall)
Differential:
Plus-76 (2nd overall)
Power play:
19.0 percent (62-327, 5th overall)
Penalty kill:
85.5 percent (296-346, 5th overall)
20-goal scorers: Jere Lehtinen (31); Mike Modano (28); Bill Guerin (25); Jason Arnott (23), Scott Young (23)
50-point scorers: Modano (85); Zubov (55); Guerin (50)
So when the Stars lost to the Mighty Ducks in six games in the second round of the playoffs, what had been a fantastic season crashed into the department of would've, could've, should've.

But a closer inspection of the season might show that the Stars simply weren't prepared for playoff success. After all, they went through a tremendous change during the previous offseason and they entered postseason play with a lot of unanswered questions.

Dave Tippett had never been a head coach in the Stanley Cup playoffs before. He had something to learn. Marty Turco had never before played a Stanley Cup playoff game before. He had something to learn. Heck, the group as a whole had no playoff experience from the season before, having missed the playoffs in 2002. On top of that, the Stars played a much different system than they had under coach Ken Hitchcock and had pretty much overturned their leadership group since their run to the finals in 2000.

So, did the Stars blow an opportunity or were they simply going through the growing pains of transition? It might have been a little of both. Either way, though, they do believe they will be better going forward. Tippett instituted a puck-moving system in which the Stars tried harder than ever to create offensive opportunities. That allowed the Stars to increase their scoring output by 30 goals from the previous season. In addition, Tippett stressed hustling defense and handed the reins to Turco, which also lowered the Stars goals-against average. As a result, the Stars had a scoring differential of plus-76 -- second only to Ottawa.

Bill Guerin and Scott Young started slowly after signing as free agents and Guerin was eventually lost to a serious thigh injury. Jason Arnott and Pierre Turgeon also battled injuries, and that brought a definite feeling of uncertainty to the top two lines.

However, Jere Lehtinen, Brenden Morrow and Niko Kapanen each showed immense improvement, allowing the Stars to not only plug in players in the top six, but also to put together a heck of a third line when everyone was healthy.

Sergei Zubov and Derian Hatcher had solid years on the blue line and Philippe Boucher proved a versatile free-agent addition that helped cover for the struggles of Richard Matvichuk.

Turco, meanwhile, showed that he could play well no matter what the defense did. He posted a 1.72 goals against average (the lowest in the NHL since WW II) and a .932 save percentage (also best in the league). His loss for 18 games to a ankle injury prevented the Stars from possibly setting a franchise record for points in a season.

In all, the regular season (with 111 points) had to be considered a solid step forward.

Looking at next season
While those outside the organization look at the recent fiscal responsibility as a sign of doomsday and "non-competition" from owner Tom Hicks, Stars insiders say their goals of winning the Stanley Cup this season haven't changed one bit.

"We're definitely trying to win now and in the future, that hasn't changed a bit," Stars GM Doug Armstrong said. "Mr. Hicks has made a financial commitment and it's up to us now to make the right decisions."

And Armstrong believes he's done just that. He has cut loose veterans Kirk Muller and Ulf Dahlen after solid seasons and he also let Hatcher, the Stars captain, walk in free agency. In addition, he placed Guerin on the trading block at one time and dealt popular veteran Darryl Sydor.

On the surface, those moves have sounded the alarm to abandon ship, but taken individually, they make a good deal more sense.

The Stars are filled with veteran players and one-way contracts, so some hard decisions had to be made on Dahlen and Muller. If they were re-signed, there would be no room to allow players like Steve Ott and Antti Miettinen the chance to earn a spot on the team. Yes, losing Hatcher is a big blow, but the Stars have to clear room for contracts for Mike Modano, Marty Turco and Jere Lehtinen. If they were to lose either of those three, it might be even more debilitating. Yes, Guerin was offered around the league, but only so the Stars could clear room to keep Hatcher. Now that Hatcher has signed elsewhere, the Stars are moving forward with Guerin as their No. 1 right winger.

And the deal that moved Sydor to Columbus and brought Teppo Numminen from Phoenix should actually make the team better this season, the Stars contend. With Numminen playing on the top pair with Sergei Zubov, the Stars could be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.

So, the bottom line is the Stars should have a payroll around $66 million, should have adequate personnel to fill in for the losses of Hatcher and Sydor (Numminen, Don Sweeney and John Erskine) and should have a team more experienced in the way that Tippett wants things run.

On paper, the Stars have almost every position filled, with a few opening left for rookies and some potential question marks in Claude Lemieux (under contract for one more season at $2.5 million with Phoenix paying $500,000) and Turgeon. The Stars would like Turgeon to bounce back and have a solid season, and at age 33, that seems a reasonable request. But the team basically told him in June it didn't want him, and there has to be some sort of emotional fallout from that. Don't be surprised if they continue to try and trade Turgeon, but don't be surprised either if he stays and plays well.

With or without Turgeon, the team has offensive depth, some scrappy defense-minded forwards, skill and depth on the blue line and a goalie who posted the best numbers in the NHL last season. Turco, a restricted free agent, is currently unsigned and negotiations are going slow, but playing hardball with him would be a dangerous game since Ron Tugnutt struggled with the No. 1 role last season.

But even with Tugnutt struggling and a series of injuries to key players, the Stars never played below .500 for any long stretch. Don't expect them to slip below that this season, no matter what the critics say.

And if the chemistry of new players comes together, the Stars really will be a solid contender for the Stanley Cup once again.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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