I'm t-minus 2 days before I leave for my hometown of Brampton, Ontario for a golf tournament, and while I'm excited for that, it also means I have to cram 5 days of work into 4, all while bringing you previews of the rest of the NHL. But, I'll admit it's been eye-opening checking out the other teams the Red Wings will be competing against this year, and today we move out West to take a look at the Pacific Division. We'll be checking out a team that just a couple of years ago took the Wings to six games in the Conference Finals, but hasn't sniffed the playoffs since.
Arrivals: Adam Burish; Andrew Raycroft; Brad Lukowich
Departures: Mike Modano; Marty Turco
This season will be one about rebuilding as the Stars said goodbye to the best goalie they've had in the last 10 years in Marty Turco. They also allowed the best player in their franchise's history to leave as a free agent, and to Mike Modano, I say "welcome to Detroit". The Stars went on a surprising run in 2008 when Turco finally appeared to shake off the "can't win in the playoffs" moniker, only to be ousted by the Wings. The Stars have failed to make the playoffs since then, and new GM Joe Nieuwendyk is going with a youth movement to move the Stars up in the Western Conference.
Offense: With Modano no longer on the team, the team's offense centers around 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards, who popped in 91 points on a bad team last year. This is now his team, and he will be expected to duplicate those efforts again this year. The Stars have a solid cast of forwards, including Loui Eriksson (71 points last year), goalie-spearer Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Jamie Benn. All of those players are going to be counted on heavily to provide consistent offense, because it appears the Stars are going to be bringing in a few rookies and younger players in an effort to start their rebuilding process. The Stars have a couple of agitators on the team that can put the puck in the net; captain Brendan Morrow is hoping to continue his rebound after missing a large chunk of 2008-09 due to injury, and he is more than capable of scoring 20-30 goals. Steve Ott also is in the 20-goal club, and if he would spend more time concentrating on scoring than on running the opposition, he might score more goals. The Stars finished a surprising 11th in the NHL in team offense last year, a stat that shocked me because I did not think of the Stars as an offensive team (I did think of them as a team that needed help from the refs to win a couple of games against the Wings last season, but that's another conversation for another day). Their power play finished a respectable 12th in the NHL, converting over 18% of their chances. One area where the Stars do look to improve is getting offense from the blueline; their leading scorer on the defense was Stephane Robidas with 41 points, but no one else got over 25 points. If the Stars can get similar contributions from their younger players, and can get some offense from the back, they will once again be one of the better scoring teams in the NHL.
Defense: To me, this is the real Achilles' heel of the Stars. They are led on defense by Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas, but the rest of the corps is very young. In 2008, the Stars received a lot of unexpected good play from guys like Mark Fistric and Matt Niskanen, and if they want to get back to contender status in the West, they will need those guys to step up and stop the regression they have shown over the last two seasons. The Stars have traditionally been one of the stingier teams in the NHL, but last year they finished 23rd in goals against, and that was what kept them out of the playoffs. Their penalty killing was especially atrocious, killing off only 77% of their penalties, good for 27th in the NHL. The Stars brought in Brad Lukowich to try and provide some stability to the blueline, but ultimately it's up to the younger players like Fistric and Niskanen.
Goaltending: For the first time in a very long time, the Stars are starting a season without Marty Turco as their starting goaltender. Last year at the trade deadline, the Stars picked up Kari Lehtonen, a goalie I am personally familiar with from his days here with the Thrashers' farm team, the Chicago Wolves. I saw what Lehtonen was capable of when he was with the Wolves, getting them to the Calder Cup Finals in 2005 only to be outshone by Antero Nittymaki. The Thrashers had high hopes for him, but unfortunately injuries have been a major factor in his career, and he has been unable to stay healthy enough to establish himself as a true number one goalie that was deserving of how high he was drafted. However, when he was traded to the Stars, he seemed to be re-born, putting up decent numbers (2.81 GAA, .911 SV%), and the hope is that he can keep that up over the course of the entire season. The Stars brought in Andrew Raycroft to back up Lehtonen, another goalie who had high expectations after winning the Calder Trophy in 2004 but has done diddly since.
Coaching: What can I say about Marc Crawford. All Red Wing fans know Crawford well from his days with the Avs, and who can forget the screaming match between him and Scotty in 1997. Besides having the worst hair in coaching now that Barry Melrose has been fired again, Crawford has been a guy who rode a great Avs team to a Cup in 1996, so everyone thinks he's some sort of coaching stud. However, since then, he's done jack with some good teams (including running this team into the ground and failing to do anything with Vancouver). The interesting thing is that this year, there will be little expectations surrounding the Stars, so if the team blows, it won't be a big surprise, and Crawford will be able to keep his job. Personally, I've never thought much of Crawford as a coach; I think he can manage superstars well, but doesn't have what it takes to lead a young team up to the ranks of contenders.
Player to Watch: Loui Eriksson's goal total slipped a little last year after potting 36 in 2008-09, but playing with Brad Richards night in and night out will certainly guarantee that he is capable of putting up at least 30 goals, and 40 is not out of the question. He is only 25 years old, and is just now rounding into form as one of the better left wingers in the West, although not many people know about him. I think this year we could easily see him set new career highs in goals and points, and he is very quickly becoming the Stars number one goal scorer. Look for him to have a big year.
Player With Something to Prove: On a young team like this, there's always someone who needs to step up. For me, that guys is Kari Lehtonen. He played well in his brief stint in Dallas last year, but he had Marty Turco behind him to bail him out if he played poorly. This year, Lehtonen is "the guy", and he not only needs to stay healthy, he needs to show that he was worthy of being the number 2 overall pick by the Thrashers in 2002. He's a big guy (6'4") who moves well laterally, but that has resulted in various injuries throughout his career. If he can get it together and play consistently for this season, then the Stars could surprise a few people.
Why They Can Win the Division: Truthfully, I don't believe they have a hope of that, but they've got a top line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson that is capable of scoring on just about anyone, and if Lehtonen suddenly becomes the goalie everyone thinks he is, they could sneak up on some people. But that defense is going to have to play like they did in 2008, and there will have to be some truly unexpected contributors among the rookies for that to happen.
Why They Won't Win the Division: Between the Sharks, Kings and Coyotes, the Pacific is one of the deeper divisions, and the Stars just don't have the talent throughout the lineup to compete with those teams over the course of an entire 82-game season. The defense is not very good in the grand scheme, and beyond the first 2 lines, there's no real scoring threat. Lehtonen could very easily end up on IR once again this season, and I just don't think that Andrew Raycroft is the answer if that happens (ask a Leaf fan how they feel about Raycroft - only Toskala gets more scorn in Toronto).
My Prediction: As the NHL's "30-in-30" preview notes, this will be a season of transition in Dallas. Modano and Turco are both gone, so it's up to a new cast of players to lead the team. I think the Stars are really going to struggle this season, and will be among the bottom-dwellers in the conference. I don't think Crawford is going to do what Tippet did in Phoenix last year. While they did bring in "Stanley Cup winning forward" Adam Burish (I'm wondering if he will regale the dressing room with stories about thrilling it was to watch the Hawks win from the press box), there's not a lot of talent up and down this lineup. I also believe that if Brad Watson is refereeing a Stars-Wings game, I'm not going to watch because I can guarantee the Wings are going to be jobbed out of 2 points anyway, and I've got a blog to update.