It's the summer of 2010 and we are over a decade removed from celebrating the last championship won by a sports team in the Dallas area. The Dallas Cowboys are seemingly on the cusp of competing to be the best this season, yet there's a sense of cautious wariness among fans as it's tough to forget what happened the last time the Cowboys entered a season as heavy favorites. The Dallas Mavericks enjoyed yet another incredibly disappointing exit in the first round of the season, after supposedly putting together the best team the franchise has had in years.
At least we have the Texas Rangers, sitting in first place in the American League West in the middle of July. While it's certainly been one heck of an enjoyable ride to see the Rangers capture the attention of the Dallas area, it's also incredible to think that all our sports dreams and hopes this year could rest on the shoulders of those that take the field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Overall, it's been a dismal ten years since we last witnessed the Dallas Stars falling in the Stanley Cup Finals to the New Jersey Devils. This has made the pressure to succeed even higher, especially in a region that is known for accepting nothing but the highest levels of performances. No excuses; just win.
Stars fans in particular are feeling the pressures and disappointments of following a team that has not only suffered from playoff losses but one that has slipped into downright mediocrity the past two years. After what Stars fans witnessed during the magic of the 2008 playoff run, it's understandable why there is a growing sense of impatience and anger of seeing the team not only struggling to compete at the highest level, but also completely unable to do anything about making significant progress towards improving the product on the ice.
Amidst all of the hand-wringing over the future of the team, we've seen the final remnants of the last great Dallas Stars team fade not just from this franchise, but from hockey as well. Ken Hitchcock likely won't be coaching this season, as there's a feeling around the NHL that his style of hockey has become outdated. Sergei Zubov moved on to the KHL, but even there he's not the great hero we all remember. He put up respectable numbers, but was passed over for the Olympic team and is likely very near retirement.
Jere Lehtinen is still a free agent, and at this point it's likely the only team in the NHL that might sign him would be the Dallas Stars. The longer we go without word from the veteran right winger, the more and more likely it is that he decides to retire himself.
Marty Turco, after the Dallas Stars decided to move on without him, is still unsigned. There's a very good chance at this point that if he is able to sign with an NHL team, it will be for less money per season than his replacement will be making in Dallas. That's a significant drop for a goaltender who holds nearly every conceivable team record at the position.
We still await word on Mike Modano's decision, and no matter which direction he takes - retirement or signing with Minnesota or Detroit - there's no doubt Stars fans will be disappointed.
Now we learn that Daryl Sydor will be retiring, and yet another icon from that Cup-winning team has walked off into the sunset.
In just a few months, the Dallas Stars will start up training camp without one player on the roster who hoisted the Cup over their head in Buffalo in 1999. Considering the prospects of the current roster of the Stars, that's a very tough and bitter pill to swallow. Even with Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull involved in the organization (and potentially Mike Modano sometime in the future) it's always hard to let go of the feeling of glory we felt before.
I wrote last week that the Dallas Stars are in purgatory, and I can't think of a better way to describe it. The Stars aren't a bad team, but general manager Joe Nieuwendyk has been handcuffed by an incredibly restrictive budget while he waits as the team goes through the sale process.
I've heard a number of times this summer, during frustrated rants over Joe Nieuwendyk's ‘failure' to significantly improve upon last season's team, that the limited budget shouldn't be an excuse. After all, David Poile in Nashville has built a consistently competitive team based on a very similar budget. We've also seen how being able to spend to the cap ceiling isn't exactly a recipe for success, as evidenced by some Stars teams of the past and the San Jose Sharks of last season.
Unfortunately, Joe Nieuwendyk took over a team stuck somewhere in the middle. It's certainly possible that he could build a competitive team based on a limited budget, except he's dealing with contracts handed out to players during a time that the Stars were certainly spending a bit more....freely. So either he starts dumping contracts and players to start fresh, or he at least attempts to build on the team that is already in place; considering the talent level present, it was a no-brainer to at least attempt to try and win with the team that he inherited.
While fans deal with feelings of anger, frustration and what seems to be a growing sense of betrayal, it's important that we remember that sports franchises aren't just about what is happening this very instant; it's about analyzing what is happening now to judge where a team might be in the future. For the Dallas Stars, that future could become a very bright one.
Joe Nieuwendyk was hired by Tom Hicks to take the Dallas Stars in a new direction, after years of being known as one of the most defensive-minded teams in the NHL. Nieuwendyk took the job of general manager of the Stars with the plan of taking the team and slowly building them into a fast, skilled and aggressive offensive team. He made the extremely controversial choice that Marc Crawford should be the coach to lead the team in this direction, banking on the Stars being able to adjust to a new system.
With an incredibly restrictive budget immediately placed over his head, and the inability to make any significant personnel moves, Nieuwendyk has yet to be able to truly put his mark on the Dallas Stars. So far, he added some fringe players and had the unenviable task of saying goodbye to some long time Stars favorites.
Yet there is hope on the horizon, I promise you. The Stars might not have the best farm system in the NHL, but over the next few seasons (and possibly starting this season) a number of promising young players could be pushing their way up to the NHL. Scott Glennie, Austin Smith, Alex Chiasson, Ondrej Roman and Patrik Nemeth will all be coming soon, an influx of young talent that fits the style that Joe Nieuwendyk is trying to promote in Dallas.
Already, the Stars have Jamie Benn on the cusp of becoming a star player in the NHL. James Neal and Loui Eriksson are two of the top young players in the league, and there's no denying the talent the Stars already have among forwards. Philip Larsen will likely be with the Stars this season, and could be the young and impressive defenseman this team desperately needs.
It's tough for a general manager to make instant, positive changes on an organization, and it's nearly impossible with budget that's one of the lowest in the NHL. We can't expect Nieuwendyk to just build this team through free agency (besides, haven't we already learned the lesson that that's not exactly the smartest route) and it takes time to start building through the draft.
Starting last summer, the Stars embarked on a journey upon a path never taken before in Dallas. Unfortunately, ownership issues and the reduced payroll put a delay on the team to get really rolling along this new path.
Now, with the icons and heroes of the glory years of the Dallas Stars gone, we've reached the start of a new era in Dallas Stars hockey. Joe Nieuwendyk waits poised to strike when new ownership finally takes over, ready to make the big moves he's needed to make since day one.
The Dallas Stars aren't that far off from being a good, or even great, team again. Yet when they do move on and take that next step, Stars team will look and feel nothing like the Stars team that won us over in the late 1990's. Perhaps we hold on too closely to what used to be and it's hard for fans to embrace a new direction. With the team struggling so mightily, it's even harder for fans to say goodbye to the last remnants of what they remember made this team so great.
We're on the precipice of a new era in hockey in Dallas and while it's hard to fathom now, there's no reason not to be excited about what that future might bring.