DALLAS – Three straight non-playoff finishes leave the Dallas Stars in foreign territory.
Once a Pacific Division power, the Stars have reached their low point since moving to the Sun Belt in 1993, matching the longest playoff drought in club history by the 1973-76 Minnesota North Stars.
The Stars are in bankruptcy and still without a new owner, they lost leading scorer Brad Richards to free agency, and general manager Joe Nieuwendyk fired coach Marc Crawford at the end of last season.
But you’re not hearing gloom and doom from Glen Gulutzan, promoted from the Stars’ top minor league affiliate to succeed Crawford behind the bench with the aim of energizing the team.
There are some positives. The Stars improved their depth in the off-season with the signing of six veteran free agents, addressing an issue that led to their demise last season.
Down the stretch, Crawford leaned heavily on his top-end players, especially No. 1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and the team had little left in the tank when the Stars fell two points short of playoff qualification on the final day of the regular season.
To that end, Nieuwendyk brought in, among others, right-winger Michael Ryder and defenceman Sheldon Souray. Ryder, who had eight goals and nine assists in 25 playoff games for the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins last season, is ticketed for the top line with centre Mike Ribeiro and left wing Brenden Morrow. The Stars are looking for Souray to take over for Richards as quarterback of a power play that finished 14th in the league last season.
Centre Vernon Fiddler, a faceoff specialist, was also added, along with forwards Jake Dowell and Radek Dvorak, and defenceman Adam Pardy.
Nieuwendyk’s hope is that those acquisitions make up at least in part for the loss of Richards, who registered 77 points in 72 games for Dallas last season before signing with the New York Rangers over the summer because the cash-strapped Stars were unable to offer a long-term deal.
For the Stars to contend, they’ll need a big season from Jamie Benn, who had a breakout campaign in 2010-11. Benn is expected to centre the second line with Steve Ott on the left wide and Loui Eriksson on the right.
“I think we recognize that he is a gifted young player who’s going to be capable of raising the bar here,” Nieuwendyk said of Benn, who had 22 goals and 34 assists last season after collecting 41 points as a rookie.
Fiddler, Dowell, Dvorak and Adam Burish all will have roles on the third and fourth lines.
“We have to be hard to play against and we’re developing that,” Gulutzan said. “We have more depth and we have to utilize that. That’s what we’re reaching for here. We want that to be our identity, a hard-working team.”
On defence, Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas project as the top pair. Goligoski was acquired last February from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a trade that cost Dallas high-scoring left wing James Neal and top-six defenceman Matt Niskanen.
Goligoski impressed teammates in his 23 games with the Stars with five goals, 10 assists and solid puck-moving skills.
“He blew me away with how poised he was with the puck,” Burish said. “He never panics. He holds onto it for that extra second to make a play. He was almost like a fourth forward for us.”
Trevor Daley and Nicklas Grossman should comprise the second pair, with Souray, Pardy and holdover Mark Fistric also in the mix.
Lehtonen remains the starter after carrying a heavy workload with 69 games last season. He was 34-24-11 with a 2.55 goals-against, hardly spectacular numbers, but at least Lehtonen showed he could remain healthy after playing in only 58 games because of injuries in the previous two seasons.
Backup Andrew Raycroft should see more action than the 14 starts he made in 2010-11.
If the Stars are to return to the playoffs, they’ll need contributions from up and down the lineup.
“The little detail things are going to add up. If we’re great at those, we’ll be a competitive team,” Ott said. “Our structure is going to be our backbone. Our competitive guys in our lineup will pushthe pace. Every single night you’ll have a tough game against the Dallas Stars.”