Learning About the Dallas Stars Offseason from Defending Big D

The SBN Hockey (SBNH?) group has a series of posts up recently where one blog asks each other about their team's offseason.  The group did this last summer, as I was paired up with Five For Howling to talk about the Phoenix Coyotes. Call it "summer filler." Call it an "outside the conference experience."  Call it what you want. If nothing else, it was a chance to learn about what another team was doing.

For this summer, In Lou We Trust was paired with Defending Big D, the SBN blog about the Dallas Stars.   You may remember the Stars as that team who the New Jersey Devils beat in 6 games in the Stanley Cup Finals to win their second Stanley Cup in 2000 - including this amazing Cup-clinching goal. You may remember the Stars as the team the Devils got Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk in exchange for Jason Arnott and Randy McKay a few years later.  You may remember the Stars as the team that came to the Rock in this past season and got pounded 4-0 in January.  Whether or not you remember all of that, do check out Defending Big D for all Stars-related analysis.

DBD writer Art Middleton asked us some questions, and Kevin, Tom, and myself were more than happy to respond.  Art has all of that over at DBD, so please go there to see what he asked about NJ and what we responded.   Kevin, Tom, and myself also had a number of questions about Dallas including their current ownership issues, the status of a few restricted free agents yet to be signed, Loui Eriksson, prospects, and a little more than that.   Art was more than kind to give his take on all of the questions we sent him, which appears after the jump.

 

In Lou We Trust: This offseason seemed to be a bit more active than most of the authors at DBD had originally expected?  In your opinion was the effort to get 'tougher' a worthwhile approach?

 

Art Middleton:  One thing that Stars fans saw a fair amount over the past season was how it seemed no one on the Stars really wanted to get 'down and dirty' as it were. To stick up for themselves or their teammates and instead skate away, let themselves be bullied to a degree or even worse, leave one guy who was willing scrap, virtually fend for himself. 

Steve Ott is not an effective enforcer and nor should he fill that role due to his ability to actually play the game well and can score goals when he isn't making "yo momma so fat" jokes in people's ear in ten different languages.  Kris Barch who they resigned this summer is always willing to drop the gloves but to use a boxing analogy, he's a middleweight fighter usually trying to step up against heavyweight competition and it rarely works out well for him.  So bringing in a guy like Adam Burish is actually kind of welcome.  There is a chance - a very small, tiny, minuscule chance mind you - that he can be Steve Ott 2.0 as he does have an OK skill set and isn't a complete pylon on the ice. At the worst though and what is expected is that he can be the tough guy, get in other players faces, drop the gloves and give the Stars a much needed shot in the arm when it comes to team toughness and grit.

ILWT: I've noticed that Niklas Grossman, Matt Niskanen, James Neal, and Perttu Lindgren remain as unsigned RFAs for Dallas.  How have negotiations been going?  Which among them are the biggest priority to re-sign?

Middleton: There was word late this week that negotiations with Neal and GM Joe Nieuwendyk have been going well and that he should be signed soon.  That by far is the most important signing of all the RFAs the Stars have.  For a while there was even some concern with a lot of fans as the expected that another team would swoop in and sign him to an offer sheet, and that somehow the Stars wouldn't match.  Of course, unless it was an INSANE amount of money, the Stars would likely have matched anything any team signed him to.

As far as the other RFAs, Grossman is pretty important as he's been slowly developing into a pretty decent stay-at-home defenseman.  From what we've heard and read, it does sound like all Stars RFAs should be signed before or during camp, but the biggest priorities would be for sure Neal and Grossman in terms of keeping them locked up.  Niskanen and Lindgren can ill afford missing any camp time, so I imagine they sign before camp starts as well or else I would suggest they'd risk quickly losing even a chance at a spot on the NHL roster.

ILWT: After losing Mike Modano this year, Sergei Zubov last year, Lehtinen unsigned, and considering the $45MM imposed cap the team has, how have the fan 'spirits' been? Will they give Joe Niewendyk some time to right the ship or are the fans getting antsy and frustrated?

Middleton:  A lot of Stars fans are very frustrated with how Niewendyk has handled the team and quite honestly I think it's because many of them don't fully understand just what Nieuwendyk was handed back when he became GM in 2009.  He had a team that was doing "OK" with it's current coach in Dave Tippett, but there had been signs he might not have "had the room" like he did in the past, so he needed to deal with that.  He had an aged roster that needed some turning over and new players needed to be developed.  Two tough situations to be in to begin with, but then you throw handcuffs on him with an internal budget and then tell the guy "now keep us a playoff team that can contend" and it just wasn't overly fair for a first time GM! 

I think some fans understand that he's done pretty well with what he was handed, but there are other fans. Ones that, like I said, maybe don't fully understand that it was kind of a perfect storm of crappiness headed the team's way that see the good that Joe has done so far.  For whatever reason, they remember what the Stars USED to be like back in the late 90's and early 00's and wonder why the team just couldn't be more like them.  Losing Modano, of course, was the final straw for a lot of these fans, but again there were a small number that understood that the Stars needed to move on and Joe made a decision with his brain and not his heart.

Will fans give GM Joe time to work things out?  I fear many already want to pull the plug.  The main thing is, as long as the team itself - and the new owner(s), once they do show up - give him time, I'm sure he will completely right the ship.  As it is, I think he already has in some ways anyway, just not in overly obvious ways.

ILWT: One of the current storylines surrounding the Stars is their eventual sale.  They've been valued by Forbes from $275-300 million.  Given that the Stars currently have a self-imposed salary cap and have had one for the past few seasons, would you think the next owner has to be willing to spend money on the team beyond current ownership to welcome the change?

Middleton: We sure hope so!  In a way though, it's been kind of nice to see other teams like Chicago, San Jose and so on struggle to find ways to stay under the cap and yet here is Dallas with all kinds of room to play with under the cap.  So when new ownership does come, I'm sure many hope and expect the wallet to open up again and the Stars can sign players needed to fill holes like the massive need they have to get a top four puck moving defenseman.  The one little side benefit to having this painful self-inflicted cap will be that the Stars will have all kinds of salary cap room to take on a high priced player or two say at the trade deadline perhaps.  At the same time though, I hope it's not a case of they spend needlessly to the cap.

The nightmare scenario for Stars fans that might possibly become reality if the rumors of NewsCorp looking at buying the Stars are any kind of true, is that a new owner comes in and instead of icing a competitive team which would be needed to stay relevant in a competitive sports market like Dallas/Ft. Worth, that the new owner would be more interested in making money and thus cut corners on any kind of player budget which in turn would hurt the team on the ice.  Hopefully a new owner that comes in is willing to spend money on the roster to make money from the people in the stands... which he/she/they should do. Keep the Stars a playoff and Cup contender, and fans will fill up the AAC night in and night out to support them.

ILWT: Loui Eriksson is one of the most underrated players in the game. We don't get to see a lot of him seeing as the Devils and Stars don't face each other often, but what's the best part of his game?  How important will he be for the Stars in 2010-11?

Middleton:  I had to think about this for a moment because really Loui doesn't really do one thing "great" but what he does do is pretty much everything very well.  He sees the ice and can anticipate plays very well.  He's quite gifted offensively, he is a fantastic "play finisher" and has a just has a nose for the net that we haven't really seen in Dallas since Brett Hull.  In that respect he compliments a player like Brad Richards really well.  He doesn't take shortcuts either, he isn't afraid to go into corners, dig for pucks or get into a scrum in front of the opposing net.  The Stars will again need him to have another 30 goal season and if he can keep improving his play in his team's own end - which he has been slowly every season - that would be even better.

ILWT: Considering Kari Lehtonen's history with injuries and Andrew Raycroft's past, which has featured inconsistent and on occasions horrible play, how much confidence do you guys have in your goaltending going into this season?

Middleton: Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of confidence in Stars fans that we might see the Kari of 06-07 when he helped carry the Atlanta Thrashers to the playoffs.  Not saying he'll do that for the Stars this year, but from day one when he came to the Stars in that trade, he made it known that he wanted to stay in Dallas for the summer, work with the team, condition his body better than he had in summers past and make himself less prone to injuries and sluggish play.  The team in turn gave him a pretty decent contract extension and in effect told him to take the starters job and run (skate?) with it as much as possible.  Truth be told, there were times in that 12 game audition of sorts that he had where he did look pretty good.   Again, I don't want to get the hopes too high but just like we saw with Mike Ribeiro a few years ago, this could be a case where a change of scenery does a player a ton of good.

As far as Raycroft goes, I think he proved himself to be a pretty decent backup in Vancouver so as long as he can fill that role well and not be a complete liability every time the Stars want to rest Lehtonen, then goaltending shouldn't be too much of an issue for Dallas.  If Kari falters though, there may be trouble because I don't think you can expect Andrew to be a full time starter for any length of time.

ILWT: What are the chances of either Scott Glennie or Philip Larsen having a major impact on the 2010-11 roster?  Related to that, what prospect in the Stars system (besides the two major ones) are you most excited about?

Middleton: With Glennie, I don't expect to see him with Dallas this year and instead see a full year in Austin with the AHL Stars.  That said, most of us said the same thing about Jamie Benn at this time last year and he wow'ed everyone and stuck big time with the roster.  So once camp starts, anything can happen.

Larsen may be a different story.  He does have a great skill set and as we saw from his brief two game audition in Dallas he may not be that far away from being able to handle the more intense physical play and bigger size in the NHL compared to that of playing in Europe.  Again, camp will tell a lot but I don't feel the Stars will rush him.  In a way they did that with Matt Niskanen and somewhat stunted his growth as a hockey player because there was a kid that looked like he could play right away at the NHL level - until Sergei Zubov was no longer his defensive partner.  And in hindsight everyone should have seen him playing with Zubov and said, "Well, that's Zubie. He could make a pylon for a partner look like an all-star.," but at the same time most figured Niskanen would have learned enough and that didn't turn out to be the case.  I don't think the Stars make that same mistake with Larsen  and instead give him lots of time to develop especially since their defensive unit - for better or for worse - is pretty much set anyway.

ILWT: Lastly, as opposed to a prediction of where the team will finish, what do you think will define the 2010-11 season for the Dallas Stars?

Middleton: The Stars should have no problems scoring goals again this year...  The real key will be how does the goaltending do and will the defense improve?  If the goaltending doesn't improve, then I feel it's on the head of Joe Nieuwendyk as this is his "hand picked" tandem and really the first aspect of the team that he has had a full say in since taking over.  If the defense doesn't improve then that is on the head of coach Marc Crawford as I think everyone can agree that a lot of the tools are there for a decent defensive unit, they just need to be utilized properly.  Of course if a new owner does come in at some point this season, then it's really a whole new game for everyone.

Last year I said I couldn't expect the Stars to do worse and they did.. so this year I - and I think a lot of fans - aren't really expecting a playoff berth and maybe one more year of rebuilding.  I just don't know if most Stars fans have the patience for that kind of game.

***

Big thanks to Art for taking the time to answer our questions.  Thanks are also in order to Kevin and Tom for contributing to this little project.  Most of all, thank you for reading. Please feel free to discuss Art's responses and the Stars in general in the comments. 

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