DALLAS – Marc Crawford wants to show that his last coaching stop was an aberration.
That happens to be the same goal for the Dallas Stars after last season, when they didn’t even make the playoffs a year after reaching the Western Conference finals.
Now they are together: the coach with something to prove after a season of analyzing games in the television booth and the team trying to regain its edge after missing the post-season for only the third time since moving from Minnesota in 1993.
“There’s a great group of players here that are disappointed with their finish last season,” said Crawford, whose TV gig came after being fired by the Los Angeles Kings for losing records in both his seasons there. “I’m not satisfied with my last stop in the NHL. So I think together, we’re all trying to make the next step. We’re all trying to recapture some greatness.”
The Stars, who make their regular season debut under Crawford at home Saturday night against Nashville, went into last season with high expectations. And for good reason, since that team’s core was basically unchanged from the previous successful run.
“Last year, the beginning of the season was awful. Then we had all the injuries,” defenceman Stephane Robidas said. “If we would have had an average start, we would have made the playoffs. But we didn’t, and we were playing catch-up the rest of the way. The focus (now) is to be ready from the get-go.”
Last season was a bust for the Stars.
The addition of agitating forward Sean Avery proved problematic and short-lived. Team captain Brenden Morrow tore his right ACL only 18 games into the season and didn’t play again.
There were extended injuries to forward Jere Lehtinen (upper-body, groin); longtime defenceman Sergei Zubov played only seven games because of a hip injury; and top-line centre Brad Richards (broken wrist).
Plus, goalie Marty Turco had career worsts with a 2.81 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.
Dallas was 8-11-4 when Avery was suspended by the NHL for crude comments about his ex-girlfriends dating other NHL players. When his six-game league suspension was up, the Stars said he would never play for them again, even though he was only two months into a US$15.5 million, four-year contract.
Right after the disappointing finish last season, team owner Tom Hicks abandoned the co-general manager concept of Brett Hull and Les Jackson, reassigning both within the organization, and hired former Stars player Joe Nieuwendyk as GM.
Nieuwendyk, the Conn Smythe Award winner when the Stars won their only Stanley Cup in 1999, took only two weeks to fire player-friendly coach David Tippett and hire Crawford. The new GM had played in the Olympics for Crawford, whose more dominant style resembles that of Ken Hitchcock, the Stars coach Nieuwendyk played for when they won the Cup.
Crawford was a 34-year-old rookie head coach for Quebec in 1994-95, the youngest recipient of the NHL coach of the year award. The team moved to Colorado and won the Stanley Cup a year later. He stayed there until 1998, then went to Vancouver (1999-2006) and Los Angeles.
Known for his aggressive approach, Crawford has brought that philosophy to the Stars. He likes a faster tempo that encourages defencemen to join the offensive attack, a bit of a departure from the defensive mindset Dallas developed through the years.
“We don’t want (the defencemen) to lose the great traits that we’ve got here. We’re going to build on them,” Crawford said. “But supplementing the attack is a really nice adjustment for this club to make. … We don’t want to become reckless. We want to be supportive.”
Ironically, Zubov, considered one of the league’s best offensive defencemen, is no longer around. The Russian became a free agent after 16 NHL seasons and decided to play in Europe.
Mike Modano took a month off after last season before deciding to return for his 20th NHL season, and the final year of his contract. The former No. 1 overall pick by the North Stars is the highest-scoring U.S.-born player and holds every significant franchise scoring mark (543 goals, 786 assists in 1,400 games played).
But the 39-year-old Modano (15 goals, 31 assists in 80 games last season) is no longer the primary scorer.
Mike Ribeiro had 22 goals and 56 assists last season, giving him consecutive 20-50 seasons. Richards had 16 goals and 32 assists despite playing only 56 games.
As for the 34-year-old Turco, going into the final year of the $22.8-million, four-year extension signed midway through the 2005-06 season, the Stars added veteran Alex Auld to help ease his load. Turco played 74 games last season and led the league with 4,327 minutes played.
“I was ready to go every night,” Turco said. “But we didn’t make the playoffs. We didn’t have team success and that’s the only thing we look at and care about.”