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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Nieuwendyk acts quickly to rebuild Stars

By Richard Durrett
ESPNDallas.com

FRISCO, Texas -- Last week, Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk took stock of his newly revamped team and smiled at the possibilities.

"We've got some guys that can score, we've added some physical players and I think our new coach can relate to this young team," Nieuwendyk said. "We were a 95-point team last year and were really close. We can get there."

It didn't take long for Nieuwendyk and his hockey operations staff to alter the look of the Stars for the 2011-12 season after jumping into the scorching free-agent market earlier this month. You see, because of hockey's salary-cap system, free agency becomes a cramming session for front offices, agents and players. Unlike baseball, in which the "hot stove" temperature stays relatively warm the entire three-month offseason (reaching a boiling point for a week in early December at the winter meetings), hockey is more like 24-hour fever.

Michael Ryder
Michael Ryder scored 18 goals last season in helping the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup.

"We had money to spend and knew the guys we wanted," Nieuwendyk said. "You can't wait around."

No, you can't. The NHL has a salary-cap floor that every team must reach. And the Stars were one of those squads hanging out in the basement, ready to trudge up the stairs. But they weren't the only ones. So as soon as the free-agency period started, Dallas and a gaggle of other teams began trying to sign players.

By the time the day was done, Nieuwendyk had six new Stars on the roster and had assembled what he believes is a deeper overall team. Gone is Brad Richards, the Stars' leading scorer from last season. He spent the first day of free agency listening to offers from several teams as TV cameras in Canada kept an eye trained on the proceedings. Before 48 hours were up, he chose the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers on a nine-year deal (that's structured more like six).

The loss of Richards should not be underestimated. He's been one of the league's most consistent scorers the past few seasons. He's a point-a-game player who provided offensive punch on a Stars team that lacked it at times. Filling that scoring void won't be easy.

So how do the Stars do it? Nieuwendyk is banking on a few things. First, that new coach Glen Gulutzan can help instill a better overall defensive game without completely eliminating the ability of his forward group to be creative in the offensive zone. In other words: be a team that can win the close, low-scoring games, but one that can still put the puck in the net when needed.

Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro must step into even bigger offensive roles. Joining them is Michael Ryder, probably the most recognizable of the Stars' free-agent signings.

"He is a pure goal scorer, and there aren't a lot of those guys around," Nieuwendyk said. "He's going to be given an opportunity to play with some good players here. He probably thinks scoring more than anything."

Ryder scored 18 goals in helping the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup. But he has four seasons of 25 or more goals on his résumé, and one of those occurred when he played on the same line as Ribeiro. The two should be reunited this upcoming season in Dallas.

The other name hockey fans know well is Sheldon Souray, a 35-year-old defenseman with one of the hardest shots in the league. He's had some off-ice issues, including a disagreement with the Edmonton Oilers that led to his spending some time in the minors. Nieuwendyk knows he's taking a risk by signing Souray but thinks he's getting a desperate player ready to prove himself again.

"He's never been fun to play against," Nieuwendyk said. "I know he's been through some issues, but they seem to be in the past. He's not coming in here to be a distraction. He's coming in to get his career going again. The upside is high. His shot on the power play will be a welcome addition."

But the player who could have the longest and most important impact is Vernon Fiddler.

The 31-year-old fits the mold of what Nieuwendyk has worked the past two seasons to create. He's a great two-way player who makes players around him better. He has 59 goals and 86 assists in 452 career NHL games, and is very good in the faceoff circle. He also got plenty of short-handed time with Phoenix last season. The Stars believe in Fiddler enough as the checking-line center that they signed him to a three-year deal, the longest of any of their free-agent signings.

Nieuwendyk supplemented those players with a few others who add to the depth in veteran Radek Dvorak (another good penalty killer), Jake Dowell (who played with Adam Burish in college and with the Blackhawks) and Adam Pardy, one of Gulutzan's defensemen a few years back in Las Vegas. The recent acquisition of Eric Godard means there will be some competition for those forward spots on the third and fourth lines.

"We like the team we have and we feel like we addressed our depth," Nieuwendyk said. "Gully will have lots of different options now."

It will be Gulutzan's job to mix and match so that the best lines emerge. He'll have to do it without the consistent scoring of Richards, but with a group better from top to bottom. Nieuwendyk didn't waste any time assembling it. And he's optimistic Stars fans will see a club that plays hard, wins close games and finally gets back to the playoffs.

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.