2008-09 Team Preview: Dallas Stars
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideLast spring marked a seminal moment in the recent history of the Dallas Stars. Having built a reputation as playoff pushovers, the Stars upset the defending Stanley Cup champs from Anaheim with relative ease and then stopped San Jose, a team many had picked to win their first Cup, in six games before dropping an entertaining six-game set to powerful Detroit, the eventual champs.
Questions about playoff goaltending, coaching, grit and leadership were all answered by the Stars' run to the Western Conference finals. They have added more grit and talent with the combustible Sean Avery and a wild card in Swedish free agent Fabian Brunnstrom.
Although they'll be without veteran defenseman Sergei Zubov for the first month of the season, the Stars played through potentially crippling injuries to their blue line last season and emerged unscathed.
"The bar's definitely been lifted a little bit higher with the success last year," co-GM Les Jackson told ESPN.com recently.
The hallmark of recent Stars teams was play suffocating defense and score just enough to get the win. Last season, the Stars opened things up and finished ninth overall in goals per game. Mike Ribeiro, rescued from Montreal, came into his own as a first-line center and led the Stars with a career-best 83 points and was plus-21. He also led the team with 17 postseason points.
Morrow, Ribeiro's linemate, stayed healthy and had 74 points. During the playoffs, Morrow took his game up a notch and established himself as the go-to guy in the room. Brad Richards came over from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline and chipped in 15 postseason points. Early in camp, coach Dave Tippett was tinkering with moving longtime center and former captain Mike Modano to the wing with Richards and Avery.
Brunnstrom, considered one of the top players not playing in the NHL and the subject of a vigorous bidding war before signing in Dallas, is listed as a center, giving the Stars terrific depth down the middle if he can adjust to the NHL game.
The Stars' offensive explosion did not come at the expense of their standard stingy defense. The Stars ranked sixth overall in goals allowed per game, a remarkable feat given Zubov (36 games), Philippe Boucher (44) and Mattias Norstrom (16) all missed significant time.
Norstrom is retired, Zubov will miss the start of the season and Boucher hasn't seen much action during camp, but should be ready for the regular season. That means youngsters Mark Fistric, Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen, who earned their stripes in 2007-08, will be expected once again to shoulder a significant load.
Although Marty Turco's numbers weren't necessarily eye-popping last season (2.31 GAA, .909 save percentage), the numbers that really mattered were in the spring -- a 2.02 GAA and .922 save percentage. His play in the quadruple-overtime series clincher in Game 6 against San Jose was heroic.
With Mike Smith in Tampa via the Richards deal, there's a new, unproven back-up in town in the form of Tobias Stephan (6-foot-2, 180-pound native of Zurich, Switzerland.) That suggests another season of 60-plus starts for the 33-year-old Turco.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Dallas is the player everyone loves to hate, Sean Avery, is now skating for the Stars. Like him or not, there is no denying that when he was in the lineup with the Rangers, the Blueshirts were a better team. Broadway's loss is the Lone Star State's gain. He will again drive Pacific Division foes to distraction.
The Stars will also benefit greatly from a full season of Brad Richards. Not only will Richards have a bounce-back season offensively, but he will also be a strong leader, both on and off the ice.
Locker-room stability is a key, and Dallas has outstanding leadership in Brenden Morrow and Marty Turco, among others. Turco also got over the hump in the postseason in 2007-08 and should be able to build on that performance this campaign.
Hot-shot European Fabian Brunnstrom was one of the most sought-after free agents and decided to sign on with the Stars. Young players Loui Eriksson, Niklas Grossman and Mark Fistric should keep things looking bright in Dallas well into the future.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 45-30-7
• Division: Third in the Pacific
• Conference: Fifth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in West finals vs. DET
• The Stars, who figure to be challenging for both the Pacific Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference (and who knows, maybe the Presidents' Trophy), will close out the regular season with five of their last seven games on the road, including the final three at Minnesota, Colorado and Anaheim. Game 82 suddenly looms large in the team's postseason dreams.
Experience: 5 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• You'd hardly find a nicer, more respected guy in the business than coach Dave Tippett. But you know what they say about nice guys, which explains, in part, why last spring's playoffs success was so important for both Tippett and the organization. It's fair to say another early exit would have cost him his job. Instead, he was rewarded with a two-year contract extension. Even-keeled and forward-thinking, Tippett's biggest challenge may be in convincing his team that last season's run wasn't an accomplishment, but a step.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Mike Ribeiro
Before his trade to Dallas in September 2006, Ribeiro looked like a bit of a lost cause. His focus was questioned by fans and the media in his hometown and the Habs seemed happy to be free of him. Away from the spotlight in Montreal, Ribeiro blossomed, reached last season's All-Star game and proved he could deliver in the clutch.
F -- Brenden Morrow
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Morrow was named captain in place of longtime face of the franchise, Mike Modano, before the start of the 2006-07 season. Injury limited him to 40 games that season, but Morrow played in all 82 games in 2007-08 and provided a much-needed dose of hard-nosed, gritty play up front. If he can stay healthy, he'll likely find himself on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.
F -- Loui Eriksson
Eriksson and veteran Jere Lehtinen split time playing on the top line, but watch for the 23-year-old Swede to make a claim for that role alone this year. Eriksson, 6-foot-1, had 31 points in 69 games with the Stars and should see those numbers jump this season.
D -- Matt Niskanen
Given the team's history of embracing Finns, it's easy to see why many believed the young defenseman from Virginia, Minnesota, was yet another. It wasn't unusual to have visiting reporters ask the Stars' media staff how Niskanen's English was. Niskanen's English was fine, as was his play, and he assumed a big offensive role with Zubov and Boucher both out of the lineup for long periods. Look for Niskanen to be asked to contribute on the power play.
D -- Stephane Robidas
Robidas may not end up playing with Niskanen, but anyone who is as tough as Robidas is can play with whomever he wants. Robidas had 11 postseason points and became something of a legend after having his nose broken by a shot in the first round of the playoffs and returning to play more than 23 minutes.
Answer: Late last season, the name Fabian Brunnstrom first started to make itself known around the hockey world. There was this kid in Sweden who was a rare talent that somehow managed to slip through the NHL draft. A free agent, Brunnstrom was courted by a number of NHL teams. Rumor had him going to Toronto and Vancouver, among others, but, in the end, it was Dallas that landed him. Now what?
Watch for Brunnstrom, who had 37 points in 54 games in the Swedish elite league last season but wasn't selected to the Swedish team at the World Championships, to be eased into the Stars' lineup, sliding in and out of the team's top six forwards and landing some power-play time.
Bust: Fabian Brunnstrom, LW. This undrafted late bloomer arrives with a lot of hype because of a bidding war after last season, but anyone expecting him to have a big effect as a rookie will be disappointed.
Fantasy outlook: Marty Turco also shed the unfair label of playoff choker, and the 33-year-old should hit 30-40 victories with a stronger lineup in front of him. Adding super-pest Sean Avery to a lineup that already had rugged Steve Ott and relentless Brenden Morrow will make the Stars fearsome. -- Jim Wilkie