On Jan. 1, 2011, the Dallas Stars were in first place in the Pacific Division and just about to go on a 7-0-1 run that appeared to have the team on a path to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Coach Marc Crawford was being touted as a coach of the year candidate.
Now, not even 12 months later, Crawford is preparing to coach Canada in the Spengler Cup; he was fired by Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk after the team collapsed and missed the playoffs for a third straight season. It has been a year of change for the Stars, who have a new bench boss, a new owner, a lot of new faces on the roster and will be playing in a new conference following a big decision by the NHL's Board of Governors.
And with that, here's one man's opinion of the most memorable stories from 2011 for the Dallas Stars. They're ranked from No. 10 to No. 1 (the biggest story), though ranking them wasn't easy.
10. Stars solve cap issue by acquiring Eric Nystrom. When the New York Rangers decided to waive forward Sean Avery and send him to the AHL in October, it left the Stars with a salary-cap issue. Because the Rangers had claimed Avery off re-entry waivers from the Stars, there was still a $1.9375 million charge on the Stars' salary cap. But when Avery went to the minors, that charge came off the Stars' books and left them below the league's salary cap floor of $48.3 million. That meant the Stars had to spend a little money. And what was GM Joe Nieuwendyk's solution? He traded for forward Eric Nystrom, whom Minnesota had waived and placed in the AHL. Nystrom immediately paid big dividends for the Stars, slotting in on the team's third line with center Vernon Fiddler and right wing Radek Dvorak, scoring 10 goals in his first 21 games.
9. Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame. The Stars got a chance to celebrate the past as two key members from their 1999 Stanley Cup championship team were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nieuwendyk, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1999, was elected in his second year of eligibility. Belfour, who was outstanding in goal in outdueling fellow goaltending greats Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek over the final three rounds of that year's playoffs, was elected in his first year of eligibility. Belfour and Nieuwendyk joined Brett Hull from that team as members of the HHOF.
8. Stars start strong in 2011-12. Preseason prognostications had Dallas finishing anywhere between 11th and 15th in the Western Conference, but the Stars turned some heads when they got off to one of the best starts in the league, winning 11 of their first 14 games (11-3-0). Leading the charge was goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who won 11 of his first 12 decisions and made 30 or more saves in 10 of those victories. The Stars cooled off due to injuries to Lehtonen, Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Brenden Morrow and Adam Burish, but they have righted the ship and remained in the thick of things in a highly competitive and very tight Western Conference.
7. Stars acquire Goligoski from Pittsburgh. GM Joe Nieuwendyk made a major move to bolster his blue line prior to the 2011 trade deadline, shipping left wing James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski. The addition of Goligoski gave the Stars an offensively skilled, puck-moving defenseman, something they had been lacking. The Penguins, hit hard by injuries, were looking for some immediate (and future) scoring punch from the wing, and Neal, one of the Stars' top goal scorers during his time in Dallas, fit the bill. Goligoski didn't disappoint, registering 15 points in the final 23 games of the 2010-11 season for the Stars.
6. Stars lose final game in 2010-11, miss playoffs for third straight year. Despite collapsing in the second half of the season due to a rash of injuries, the Stars rallied late in the season with a four-game winning streak and had a chance to make the playoffs on the final day of the season. Their final game was in Minnesota, where they needed a win to put them in the playoffs. The two teams were tied 3-3 after two periods, but former Star Antti Miettinen's goal at 6:47 of the third period snapped the tie, and the Wild went on to beat the Stars, 5-3. It was the third straight season the Stars had missed the playoffs. However, the Stars did finish the season with 95 points, which tied a record by the 2006-07 Colorado Avalanche for the most points by a team that failed to make the playoffs.
5. Stars realigned under NHL plan. The Stars were among the big winners in early December when the NHL's Board of Governors approved a four-conference realignment plan for the 2012-13 season. The Stars, who had been in the Pacific Division with three teams two time zones away and no teams in their own time zone, would now be in an eight-team conference with teams primarily in the Central Time Zone. The Stars' new conference includes Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. The change will cut down on the Stars' travel and the number of trips to the West Coast. It also helps Stars fans, who no longer will have to stay up till midnight (or beyond) to watch their team play divisional opponents on the road.
4. Stars lose Richards, add depth to fill the void. The 2010-11 season was a contract year for center Brad Richards, and the speculation about whether he would re-sign with the Stars became a season-long story. After Richards expressed reservations about re-signing with Dallas because of the team's unresolved ownership situation, the focus turned to whether the Stars would move him before the NHL trade deadline. The Stars, who were right in the middle of a playoff race, kept him. After the season, when it became clear the Stars would be unable to re-sign Richards, Nieuwendyk explored the possibility of trading Richards' rights in an attempt to get something in return before losing him in free agency. Richards and his agent weren't interested. Finally, Richards, who had turned down a four-year, $27 million deal from the Stars prior to the deadline, hit the market on July 1 and eventually signed a nine-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers. With Richards gone, Nieuwendyk took the money he saved from not re-signing Richards and used it to sign several players on July 1 to boost the team's depth. Right wing Michael Ryder, who won a Stanley Cup with Boston, gave the Stars a right-handed scoring threat. Nieuwendyk also boosted the team's lower lines, a sore spot in recent seasons, with the additions of Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Jake Dowell. And finally, he made some key additions on defense, bringing in veteran Sheldon Souray and Adam Pardy.
3. Modano retires. Mike Modano, the greatest player in franchise history, announced his retirement in September. The first-round pick (and first overall) of the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, Modano played a total of 21 NHL seasons, the first 20 with the Stars franchise. The Stars signed Modano, who played his final season with Detroit, to a one-day contract so he could retire a Dallas Star. Modano, who holds just about every offensive record in Stars franchise history, retired as the NHL's all-time leader in career goals (561) and points (1,374) among U.S.-born players. Modano not only had a big impact on the ice, but he was instrumental in selling the game in Texas when the Stars moved to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993. Modano is expected to join the Stars franchise in a front office capacity in the near future.
2. Crawford fired, Glen Gulutzan hired. Just days after the Stars missed the playoffs for the third straight season, Nieuwendyk announced that he was firing head coach Marc Crawford, who had been at the helm for two seasons. The Stars showed improvement over Crawford's two-year tenure, but they failed to get into the playoffs after fading in the second half of both seasons. Crawford's firing kicked off a search for a new coach. Nieuwendyk interviewed a handful of candidates, including former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, Montreal assistant Kirk Muller, Nashville assistant Peter Horachek and Texas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. In June, Nieuwendyk chose the 39-year-old Gulutzan, who led Texas to the AHL's Calder Cup Finals in their inaugural season and then back to the playoffs in the franchise's second season. Gulutzan brought attention to detail and structure to the Stars, and the team got off to a strong start to the 2011-12 season.
1. Tom Gaglardi buys the Stars. The long wait for new ownership for the Stars came to an end just before Thanksgiving when Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi completed a deal to purchase the Stars, who had filed for bankruptcy in September to help facilitate the sale. Gaglardi, president of Northland Properties and co-owner of the WHL's Kamloops Blazers, is a lifelong hockey fan with Texas ties (his mother is from Longview). It opened a new chapter for the Stars, who had spent the past couple seasons under a tight budget due to the financial woes of previous owner Tom Hicks' sports empire. Gaglardi hired Jim Lites as the team's president, a post Lites had held from 1993 to 2007. Gaglardi's first major initiative was to cut ticket prices in an effort to boost attendance, which had dropped over the past couple seasons due to the uncertainty over ownership and the team's struggles on the ice. It was the first move of what should be many by Gaglardi and Lites as they try to revitalize the organization.