So, the Dallas Stars season opener is tonight (check out Defending Big D's preview here).
An argument could be made that this is the first season since the club moved to Dallas in 1993 that the playoffs seem like a bit of a stretch. Prior to 2009 they missed the playoffs just twice - in 1995-96 and 2001-02, two seasons that were jarring enough to bring about coaching changes from Bob Gainey and Ken Hitchcock - the two pillars of Dallas Stars Hockey - and significant roster turnover. In the midst of those losing seasons (well, '01-'02 was a 90-point season, but they still lost out on a playoff birth), the Stars made key moves. During and after the '95-'96 season, they added Guy Carbonneau, Joe Nieuwendyk, Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov, broke in a winger named Jere Lehtinen, and hired Hitchcock. After missing the playoffs in 2001, Dallas dealt Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner in a deal to obtain Jason Arnott, signed Bill Guerin, and replaced Hitchcock with Dave Tippett.
The result? Immediately after 1996 came five consecutive division titles, nine playoff series wins, and a Stanley Cup. The summer of 2002 was followed by another successful five-season run that included two more division titles in an improved Pacific division, five straight seasons with at least 97 points, but just three playoff series wins. The pattern ends there, however, as the Stars followed a lottery appearance in 2009 with another coaching change, but this time a second summer at home.
Unlike those rebound seasons, the Stars have been unable to add key veterans, due to the financial gunk that is Tom Hicks team management. They turned over the veteran end of their roster this summer, parting with local hockey legends Mike Modano, Lehtinen and Marty Turco, but those subtractions still left the organization with right around zero cash to spend, since poor ownership will require a payroll at the very bottom of the league once again. Adam Burish and Andrew Raycroft are the entirety of your summer additions this year. For the uninitiated, that adds up to a fourth-linish energy and lockerroom presence and a journeyman backup goalie.
While the club's ability to win big is in serious doubt, the situation at the AAC is not completely dissimilar to what Hicks' Texas Rangers faced in 2009 and 2010. Like the Rangers, the Stars do have some serious young talent. Second-year forward Jamie Benn looks like one of those centerpiece players, James Neal may in-fact be The Real Deal, and Loui Eriksson is one of the best 20-something, two-way players in the league. Veterans Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott, Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro are right around 30, still in their respective primes. While the team lacks frontline defensemen (despite Stephane Robidas' All-Star Game appearance), the mid-20s group of Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and even Matt Niskanen is a nice collective asset. There are a few quality prospects from the goal forward, and we should see mobile defenseman Philip Larsen again before too long.
The problem is that while there is young talent, more pieces are needed for this team to turn the corner, and that has no chance of happening until the franchise can rid itself of Hicks. No one knows exactly when that will happen, so in most respects Stars fans are in a holding pattern. We can watch some good players, hope to see some of them develop further, and cross our fingers that the end of HSG is near, but open-ended building gets old, and we are guaranteed incomplete units for at least this season.
With all of that said, there is one thing that can happen immediately. Kari Lehtonen can cement himself as this organization's goalie-of-the-present-and-future and as one of the best in the league. He will have to battle an iffy defensive unit in front of him, but he had a nice 12-game debut last season with that same group and has done some special things behind Atlanta Thrashers lineups that left a lot to be desired. Lehtonen is 26 (he will turn 27 next month), but he comes with one enormous caveat. No one is certain whether he can stay healthy for an entire season. He needs to play at a high level to establish himself here, but he also needs to be on the ice for 60 or so games.
Nieuwendyk rolled the dice last spring, bringing in a goalkeeper who had only played 92 games in almost three complete seasons while retaining his outgoing franchise netminder, knowing that even if things worked out beautifully, he will have to re-sign the Finn soon on his shoe-string budget. The positive was that the price - talented but enigmatic defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th-round pick - allowed for some error margin.
If you do decide to join the audience tonight between Games Two and Three of the Rangers Divisional Series Crusade, you can follow at least one storyline that really means something - now - for the Stars. They will begin to find out whether they have a true franchise goalie around which they can build, once the Hicks Curse is lifted.