Thursday, October 6, 2011
Dallas Stars 2011-12 preview
By Mark Stepneski
After missing the playoffs for the third straight season there were some significant changes for the Dallas Stars in the offseason. Marc Crawford, the head coach for the last two seasons, was canned and hired to replace him was Glen Gulutzan, who had coached the Stars’ minor league affiliate in the AHL the last two years.
“He’s smart, talented and prepared,” Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said of Gulutzan. “He’s the right man for the job.”
The Stars did an overhaul on the roster as well. With leading scorer Brad Richards departing via free agency Nieuwendyk decided to take the money he might have spent on Richards and used it to bolster the team’s depth by signing five forwards (Michael Ryder, Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Jake Dowell, Eric Godard) and adding two defensemen (Sheldon Souray, Adam Pardy).
“[Brad] was a point producer for us, but I feel very confident that our team is a deeper team now than we were a year ago,” said Nieuwendyk. “I think the most important focus of our team this summer was to work on the depth and get guys in their proper roles and positions.”
The Stars believe that depth will help them better handle the rigors of the long NHL season. That’s something they haven’t done well the last two seasons, when they tailed off in the second half and ended up missing the playoffs. Last season, for example, the Stars relied heavily on their top players in the second half when injuries started to pile up and some of those players started to wear down the stretch.
“We have to have a deep team. That’s a focus for us,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think one of the messages is that every day counts and everybody matters within our team.”
Under Gulutzan, the Stars would like to be a team that plays with pace.
“We’re going to play a little bit more of a direct game. I think it’s not so much the coaching as it is that our personnel has changed. Adding Ryder, Fiddler, Dowell and Dvorak is going to give us a little more pace in a couple of those players,” said Gulutzan. “And when you add those two or three type players with the emergence of our young guys like Benny (Jamie Benn) we’re going to play with a little bit more direct attack, pacey game. We’re going to have to because we don’t have Brad.”
A top priority for Nieuwendyk is for the team to play with better structure.
“I think our defensive structure will be important. I think our goaltending is solid with Kari [Lehtonen] and [Andrew Raycroft], but we have to give them some easier looks. We have to have a better structure, said Nieuwendyk. “I think offensively we have a lot of guys that are gifted and can do some things. I just think the overall structure of our team has to be better.”
And the Stars believe that by adding some size, grit, penalty killing expertise, faceoff ability and players who are strong competitors the team will be harder to play against.
“All the new faces are a lot of strong, competitive guys,” said forward Steve Ott. “I think we can match everybody’s competitiveness and strength in the league with our new additions. I think it really makes us a hard team to play against. Personally, I am looking forward to that, too, because mentality-wise we’re going to be right there and extremely competitive.”
If there is one area where the Stars depth movement should have a big impact it will be at the forward position.
“We have some more depth,” said Gulutzan. “Vern Fiddler, Dvorak and Dowell have been added up front. (Michael) Ryder. We have to use that.”
Ryder, who won a Stanley Cup with Boston last season, brings some scoring punch. He’s hit the 30 goal mark twice in his career and is a right-handed goal scorer, something the Stars have been looking for the past few years. He’s expected to start the season on a line with left wing Brenden Morrow and center Mike Ribeiro, a former teammate in Montreal.
Players like Fiddler, Dvorak and Dowell are expected to give the Stars lower lines a big boost. Fiddler is one of the better checking line centers in the league, a top penalty killer and an excellent faceoff man. Dvorak brings speed, penalty killing ability and some depth goal scoring. Dowell can play left wing or center, kill penalties and bring some physical play to the lineup. He’s expected to be a key player on the fourth line.
The Stars believe their bottom six should be stronger with the additions and will provide some depth scoring, something the team has lacked the past few seasons.
The Stars believe they have plenty of scoring punch that can play in the top six with Ribeiro, Morrow, Ryder, Loui Eriksson, who has 92 goals over the last three seasons, and Jamie Benn, who had 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) in 69 games last season.
How the pieces go together is still a work in progress. While the top line of Morrow, Ribeiro and Ryder seems set, the other lines were up in the air as the Stars practiced the final few days before Friday’s opener against Chicago.
Benn will center the second line. It was expected that Steve Ott, someone the Stars think can provide some scoring pop as well, and Eriksson could be his wings but an injury to Adam Burish, who appeared to be destined to play on the third line with Fiddler and Dvorak, has had Gulutzan juggling things around.
Benn has centered Ott and Tomas Vincour, and Eriksson and Vincour this past week. Both Ott and Eriksson have taken turns on the left side of a line with Fiddler and Dvorak. Dowell, Tom Wandell and Toby Petersen have been skating as the fourth line. Krys Barch has been skating as the 13th forward.
“You’re looking for whatever works,” said Gulutzan. “I think if you have a team that has a clear identity then you can plug in different pieces and it should work because everybody is kind of playing the same. I am never going to take away that chemistry part from two players if I can help it, but sometimes those things develop naturally instead of a coach trying to figure out if they are going to develop.”
While the Stars made big changes to the forward group in free agency, the overhaul of the team’s defense started last season with the trade for Alex Goligoski, acquired from Pittsburgh for forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen prior to the trade deadline.
“I think that’s been a focus for us is to improve our defense,” said Nieuwendyk. “I think that was a very important trade for us. “
Goligoski gave the Stars a much needed skilled, puck moving defenseman and he didn’t disappoint after joining the Stars last season, registering 15 points in 23 games. Goligoski, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley give the Stars a trio of very mobile defenseman who can make things happen when they have the puck.
“You look at Chicago’s success and Detroit’s success over the years and you have defenseman that can move the puck and handle the puck and make plays,” said Nieuwendyk.
In free agency the Stars added former Calgary Flame Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray, who spent last season in the AHL, was bought out by the Edmonton Oilers this past summer and has been slowed by injuries in recent years.
“I think we are getting a real motivated player. He’s an NHL player and plays with that edge that I like and I think that maybe we’ve lacked a little bit on our backend. He’s not fun to play against,” Nieuwendyk said of Souray. “We think [Pardy’s] mobility and his size are going to be a big asset for us.”
The Stars also have the steady and reliable Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric, two physical defensive defensemen. On the roster to start the season will be 21-year-old Philip Larsen. The smooth skating, skilled Larsen is in the mix for the opening weekend due to injuries to Grossman and Pardy.
There were some questions about Kari Lehtonen coming into last season, but he answered them. Lehtonen, slowed by injury problems related to conditioning issues in the past, played in 69 games and posted a 34-24-11 record, 2.55 goals against average and .914 save percentage. He tied his career-high in wins and put together his best goals against average.
Now, the Stars would like to see him take another step forward.
“I think his focus this year is: OK, I’m back, I’m a good goalie, now I want to show everybody I am an elite goalie,” said Nieuwendyk. “I think he is going to have a terrific year.”
Lehtonen said he feels great coming into this season, and is looking forward to taking another step in his career.
“Keep getting better, playing more good games in a row,” he said. “I just want to make a step forward to be a better goalie. Just mature and get better. That’s all you can do.”
Backing up Lehtonen again this season will be Andrew Raycroft. He was 8-5-0 last season with a 2.83 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
“He came in early and worked extremely hard. We’re always looking at small things where he can make changes to his game,” said Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “One thing he knows it that he is going to be given the opportunity to play more.”
The Stars would like to see Raycroft play more this season to take some of the load off Lehtonen, who probably was running low on fuel late in the season after playing the final 23 games.
“Ideally you’d like to see [Lehtonen] play a little less and be a little fresher at the end of the season. That’s no secret,” said Valley. “I just think it is important to have two guys going the whole time, that you have two guys being sharp.”
The Stars finished 14th in the league last season on the power play at 18.0 percent. Although they lost Richards, who led the team in power play scoring, the Stars believe they have added a couple of key components to the power play that should complement players like Ribeiro, Morrow, Eriksson, Benn, Goligoski and others.
One is Ryder, who adds a much needed right shot scoring threat. The other is Souray, who brings a booming shot from the point that the Stars have been lacking in recent years.
“I think we’ll have two balanced units. We’ve scratched our heads a lot the last couple years about that right shot and how important that is. And Michael Ryder is a gifted goal scorer,” said Nieuwendyk. “With Souray we’ll have a weapon back there that we haven’t had for a few years.”
The Stars’ penalty kill ranked 23rd last season at 80.1 percent and it should get a boost from free agent signings like Fiddler and Dvorak, two players who are excellent penalty killers. Fiddler’ faceoff ability should help on the penalty kill front as well.
Gulutzan takes over after two years at the helm of the Texas Stars. He led that team to the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals in the franchise’s inaugural season and back to the playoffs in the second season.
He drew praise from players early in training camp as he started to put his system in place.
“Really good, very positive,” forward Toby Petersen said of the first day under Gulutzan. “I think the most noticeable thing is the attention to detail that he brings.”
The new Dallas bench boss is said to be smart, a good communicator, detail oriented and hard working.
“You can tell he was prepared and born to do this type of job,” said Nieuwendyk. “He’s a teacher. He comes from a teaching background and I think he is going to do wonderful things.”
Also joining the staff is Paul Jerrard, Gulutzan’s assistant in Texas who is now an assistant in Dallas. Jerrard, who took the place of the dismissed Charlie Huddy, will handle the team’s defensemen. Willie Desjardins, who joined the team prior to last season as an associate coach, remains in the same position Mike Valley continues to handle the goaltenders. Stu Barnes, who had been an assistant, is now a hockey operations consultant.
The preseason predictions for the Stars aren’t brimming with optimism. Most of them have the team finishing 11th or lower in the Western Conference.
“I don’t think it was any different last year, so we’re used to it and we’re fine with it,” said Kari Lehtonen.
Said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan: “Who doesn’t like the underdog role? The expectations are low, obviously, nationally. Our expectations internally are a little higher than that. That’s fine. We’ll embrace that role.”
The Stars missed the playoffs by just two points last season and while they lost a key and gifted player in Richards, some key areas were addressed in the offseason. The addition of Ryder gives them goal scoring punch. The additions of Fiddler, Dvorak and Dowell help strengthen the bottom six forwards. Last season’s trade for Goligoski was key in upgrading the defense. The goaltending is solid with Lehtonen as the No. 1 and Raycroft serving as the backup.
As is the case with any season, a lot of things have to go right. Top players will need to perform to expectations. Other players are going to have to take a step forward.
“We have to have some things come through for us,” said Nieuwendyk. “Jamie Benn has to take that next step. Loui Eriksson has to take the next step. Michael Ryder has to come over, perform and do well for us. So, if things fall into place I think we are a much deeper team, especially on our lower lines.”
Of course, there has to be some good fortune on the injury front.
And nothing happens in a vacuum. The Stars motto this season is every day counts and everybody matters. So will every point. That’s because the Western Conference will be highly competitive again this season. It could be just a matter of a few points that will determine if a team is in or out of the postseason tournament.
“I think we are in better shape than were a year ago,” said Lehtonen. “Get a few more wins and make the playoffs. That’s the first goal.”