DALLAS, TX -- The Dallas Stars are stuck in a holding pattern, locked in stasis until the team is finally under new ownership.
Under Tom Hicks the Stars were once one of the big spenders in the NHL and always one of the best revenue-generating teams in the league. With Hicks financial troubles coming to a head over the past few years, the Stars have had to pull back on spending and on payroll. Unfortunately that pull back coincided with a decline in overall performance, leaving the Stars in a very tough place.
Joe Nieuwendyk was sabotaged from the moment he accepted the job as the General Manager last summer. Hand-picked by Hicks in what now appears to be a last-ditch effort in turning the team around on a dime, Nieuwendyk has had to deal with aging veterans, bloated contracts and an incredibly restrictive payroll from the moment he took over for Les Jackson.
Nieuwendyk has had the near-impossible task of driving the team forward in a new direction without the ability to make any big trades or even sign a big-name free agent. Hes attempting to keep the Stars afloat and treading water, while waiting for the internal salary cap restrictions to be lifted, however slightly. His plan from the start was to mold the Stars into a younger, faster and more aggressive team and so far his only true steps in that direction were having the tough task of saying goodbye to a number of fan favorites.
Sergei Zubov, Mike Modano and Marty Turco are now gone, as Nieuwendyk made the decision to move on with younger and cheaper players. Zubov was let go last summer, while this summer Stars fans have had to watch Modano and Turco sign with other teams as free agents. This has certainly turned the fan-base against the GM as the fans see their favorite players depart while the Stars appear to be content on not moving forward. That Jere Lehtinen is likely to retire this summer, as well, will be just as hard to swallow.
So where are the Stars now?
The biggest issue this summer facing Nieuwendyk has been the number of restricted free agents the Stars had, including James Neal and Niklas Grossman, who recently inked a new deal with the team.
There has been a worry all summer long that another team would give an offer for Neal that the Stars couldn't match, especially considering that the team is apparently hard up against their internal $45 million payroll. Nieuwendyk has been confident that Neal, Matt Niskanen and others will be signed, yet he's going to be making a bit of a gamble.
The Stars will be able to sign their RFAs by banking on new ownership raising the budget. There is the widespread belief that either Bill Gallacher or Tom Gaglardi will own the team by opening night and it's highly likely either will be willing to spend money in order to improve the team.
Neal is essential to the future of the Dallas Stars, and Nieuwendyk knows that while he may not have the budget at this moment by the time the contract is in place he will.
Fortunately, the Stars haven't been in complete stasis this summer and have taken what measures they could in improving the team.
With Turco allowed to leave via free agency, the Stars are moving forward with Kari Lehtonen after signing the Finnish goaltender to a three-year contract. Lehtonen showed at the end of last season he had recovered from his back surgery and that he still had the ability to dominate games. While questions about his durability will always remain there's no doubting that Lehtonen has the ability to be an elite goaltender in the NHL. It's another risk that Nieuwendyk is taking but one that would certainly be worth it if Lehtonen pans out.
With Lehtonen stepping up as the starter and with Turco gone, the Stars will be entering training with a battle on their hands for the backup goaltender position. The Stars signed veteran journeyman Andrew Raycroft to two-way contract and will pit him against AHL veteran Brent Krahn.
Krahn was simply incredible last season for Texas Stars although he once again had to deal with the injuries that have plagued him throughout his career. It should be a great competition throughout the preseason and either option leaves the Stars with more than a capable backup.
Perhaps the most talked about acquisition by the Stars was the surprise signing of Adam Burish. With Steve Ott entrenched on the Stars and Nieuwendyk re-signing Krys Barch, the last thing anyone expected was for the Stars to go and sign another feisty and agitating winger. Yet upon further review it seems that Burish could be just what the Stars need.
He's a right-handed right wing, something the Stars are woefully short on and while he is an agitator he provides the emotion and the edge that was missing from this team last season. It was apparent that Ott can't be the emotional catalyst on his own and at times he's looked to be a conflicted player on the ice. Burish's presence should free Ott up to be more offensively productive without having to worry about being the backbone of the team.
The Stars aren't going to be contenders this coming season, but they won't be basement-dwellers either.
There is hope that in their second season in Marc Crawford's system the Stars will take a step forward and hopefully overcome their shortcomings on defense.
While rumors have swirled all summer regarding a trade involving Mike Ribeiro and a number of big-name defensemen, it's likely that any such move will have to wait until after new ownership is in place.
Nieuwendyk has kept the Stars in position to be able to immediately improve as soon as his budget is increased, even slightly. That he's been able to do so without selling off the main parts of the team while retaining vital assets for the future should be looked upon as encouraging.