I was talking with a friend about this yesterday, and I really think the short answer is ``yes.''
There has been a lot of negativity circling the Stars for the past two seasons, where the team has missed the playoffs for only the third and fourth times since it moved to Dallas in 1993. When you think about that, there is plenty of room for depression and negativity. This franchise has won seven division championships since the move and went through a long stretch where it was one of the top four teams in the league (Detroit, Ottawa and New Jersey were the others) in terms of regular season record, so it has fostered high expectations. Because of that, missing the playoffs two consecutive seasons is easily seen as cause for alarm.
When you mix in the financial woes of the team and the radical changes in the front office from Doug Armstrong to the Les Jackson-Brett Hull duo to Joe Nieuwendyk, there has been plenty to evaluate and criticize, and that too has left fans scratching their heads.
And now, with the forced departure of Mike Modano, it just seems more negativity circles in the brain of a Stars' fan, so much so that what probably should be deemed optimistic moves are being seen in a negative way.
Why would you spend money on raises for Steve Ott, Krys Barch or Toby Petersen when you won't bring Modano back?
Why would you sign Adam Burish and Andrew Raycroft when you can't get James Neal and Nicklas Grossman signed?
Why would you hire Willie Desjardins as an ``associate coach?'' Are you already thinking of getting rid of Marc Crawford?
The problem with that logic is that there's too much thought about the big picture and not enough about the job at hand. The Stars need to add some important elements. A top level puck-moving defenseman (or two) is essential to what Nieuwendyk and Crawford want this team to be. If you are going to be able to skate and attack and get your forwards into open ice (which is what they want), then you have to be able to move the puck smoothly from your own back end to those forwards. It's why Nicklas Lidstrom has been a big part of Detroit's success, why Duncan Keith was such a big part of Chicago's success and why Drew Doughty is so much a part of the potential success of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Stars had that guy in Sergei Zubov for 12 seasons, and we probably didn't appreciate it enough. Now, we have seen just how important that is to a team.
But, the Stars can't add that guy (or guys) at this time. They don't have the room in their very tight budget ($45 million) and they have to wait for a new owner to see if they can increase that budget and give Nieuwendyk a little more leeway in trying to swing a trade (or even wait until next summer to add a free agent at that time). So, there is a very good chance that a very big problem is not going to get solved any time soon.
And that is cause for concern.
But instead of throwing up his hands and giving up, Nieuwendyk and his management crew have decided to attack smaller issues. They are envisioning the team down the line and they are wondering what it could look like when the new defenseman (and possibly a goal-scoring right wing) are in place. They are pondering how the leadership group will come together, how the third and fourth lines will look, and they are scouring the league for moves that can be made now.
They signed Barch and Petersen to significant raises (Petersen from $550,000 to a cap hit of $775,000 and Barch from $575,000 to a cap hit of $837,500)), because they believe each offers elements that can be used on the third and fourth lines, as well as leadership in the room. It's easy to criticize the raises and say that players such as Aaron Gagnon or Francis Wathier could have done the job just as well for cheaper. The savings could have then used to keep Modano or sign Neal. But in talking to people within the organization, they believe that Barch is a better player than Wathier right now and that Petersen is a more versatile player than Gagnon (and the Stars need versatility with this mix of forwards). In addition, both are important leaders in the room. The younger players flock to Petersen, because many played with him in the AHL. Barch is a vocal guy in what is a pretty quiet room.
So, extending each for two years seems like a pretty good risk. The argument I think you could make against that decision is that Gagnon and Wathier would have probably grown this season at the NHL level, and that this season would be a good one to deal with those growing pains. But that is where Nieuwendyk and his crew show that they believe they can win now, and that they need to best structure the players they have to win now.
As for signing Burish and Raycroft as free agents, they would have been seen as mere blips if the team wasn't on a budget. Burish played for $712,500 for Chicago last season. He has 11 goals and 10 assists in 169 NHL games, and did not score a point in 15 playoff games last year. So giving him a raise to an average cap hit of $1.15 million seems risky. But the Stars believe the 27-year-old right-handed forward has potential to do more. He captained Wisconsin to the NCAA championship and had 21 points in 64 games in his only season in the AHL. They feel he will be a solid leader and will make the team hard to play against, and that he will get a bigger slice of the team than he had in Chicago.
Now, the criticism of this move is didn't they just sign Steve Ott to do that? Ott signed a four-year deal with a cap hit of $2.95 million last season, so the Stars are investing heavily in grit. In addition, because these contracts are back-loaded, the Stars in 2011-12 will be paying Ott $3.3 million and Burish $1.3 million. That's a lot, but Nieuwendyk believes new ownership will be in place and these numbers will fit together at that time.
Raycroft's deal is a great one, because he can be sent to the minors and paid $105,000 this season. That way, he and Brent Krahn will be able to battle to be the backup goalie to Kari Lehtonen, and the one that is sent to the AHL will be paid AHL money. You can argue that there were less risky back-up goalies out there, but the Stars really feel that they need to see what Krahn can do. He has shown stretches of brilliance in the AHL, and they feel they need to let him see if he can find that brilliance at the NHL level. I think that's a pretty good risk, because the organization has put a lot of work in with Krahn.
So Nieuwendyk has tried to make the team better for next season by filling in with small deals. Will Lehtonen be better than Marty Turco? The Stars felt they had to make a change in goal, and they believe Lehtonen has the potential to be great. Again, there is risk involved because of his injury history and conditioning history, but that's the move Nieuwendyk felt he could make last season. Should they have let Petersen go and allowed Modano to stay? I just think Modano is such a big presence that they couldn't keep him around as a third or fourth liner. And with Tom Wandell coming back off of knee surgery, they needed to clear the way to let Wandell take a bigger part of the lineup. Should they have signed Barch or added Burish when they already had Ott? Nieuwendyk wants the team to be tougher, and Burish should help the team on the third and fourth lines. He's an upgrade, it's just that he's an expensive upgrade for a team on a budget.
Which brings us to the coaching staff. Nieuwendyk is firmly behind Marc Crawford and believes Crawford will be a better coach this season after getting to know his players and shaking the rust off from a season away from the bench. Still, Crawford is an artistic type who thinks big picture, and he needs a little help with details and planning for things like practices. Desjardins is a detail person. He carries a notebook around and he is said to have great practices. He ran an attacking system in Medicine Hat, and that fits what the Stars want to do. Naming him associate coach is important, because they want him to instantly play a big role in helping guide this team.
That doesn't mean they want to fire Crawford. It means they feel Desjardins can be a big part of pushing buttons behind the scenes. Again, it is a risk to ask a junior coach to step up and coach pro athletes, but they believe he and Crawford are a good mix together.
And that is why they are optimistic and why you can be optimistic. They have tried to fix as many problems as they can on their budget, and they believe the team will be better. They believe players like Jamie Benn, James Neal, Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric will naturally improve. They believe Lehtonen will be better after an off-season of conditioning. They believe Wandell will recover from his knee surgery and be an important part of the team. They believe that adding a player like Burish will give Crawford the ability to assemble some gritty checking lines (or mix in checkers on the scoring lines) and help out the defense with better backchecking. They believe adding Desjardins will give more detail to the team and help get the message across more clearly.
And those are all good things.
Now, the realist will tell you that a combination of Lehtonen, Krahn and Raycroft in goal is still unproven; that they still have to get Neal and Grossman under contract, and that the Brad Richards' contract situation hangs like the Sword of Damocles until new ownership is in place; that they could have a few too many knuckleheads now (like they did when Sean Avery was here); that they still have too many left-handed shots, and that there is no indication they will be any better at faceoffs than the 48.1 percent that ranked them 22nd in the league (by the way, Mike Modano won 50.4 percent of his 847 faceoffs).
So you have to balance things out.
I'm trying to be realistic with this roster, and I have asked a few friends if you had to rank the teams based on roster and coaching staff, where would you rank the Stars. My guess is most of you would say around 20th. That's the reality for a team on a tight budget. Now, people would have ranked the Coyotes and Predators much lower before last season, and they both made the playoffs on extremely tight budgets, so the Stars can do the same thing.
But the bottom line is Nieuwendyk and his crew are trying to improve this thing any way they can, and they believe they are taking steps forward, and that is reason for optimism. Plus, if you remember back to when Norman Green owned the team in 1995, things were falling apart everywhere. Tom Hicks bought the Stars, and they immediately started making changes and improving. Nieuwendyk has the team positioned to do that once more money is available, and that is reason for optimism.
So, will the Stars be one of the better teams in the NHL in 2010-11? I don't think they will be. But should you be optimistic as a fan that Dallas is moving in the right direction? I think you should be.