NHL Season Preview: Dallas Stars

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Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the extra time off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.

Who's In: Sean Avery, W (FA-NYR)

Who's Out: Niklas Hagman, W (FA-TOR); Antti Miettinen, W (FA-MIN); Stu Barnes, C (Retirement); Mattias Norstrom (Retirement); Brad Winchester, W (FA-STL)

What's Changed: Playoff success over their divisional rivals. Since beating the 8th-seeded Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, Marty Turco and the Stars hadn't even enjoyed a series lead until this past postseason. Last year, after finishing third to the Sharks and the Ducks in a tough Pacific Division, the Stars eliminated both of their divisional rivals, winning the first two games in Anaheim and the first three games against San Jose. Then, as the cartoon illustrates, Dallas ran headfirst into a Red Wings machine and was eliminated in the conference finals in six games.

Still, it was a triumphant return to playoff success for the Stars, who got excellent performances from Turco, the top line of Mike Ribiero, Brendan Morrow, and Jere Lehtinen, deadline acquisition Brad Richards, a defensive core led by Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley, and of course Mike Modano. This year, the Stars figure to improve on that disciplined puck-pressure formula that worked well for them in the playoffs. Right, Avery?

I don't think the Stars got enough credit going into last year's playoffs (note that this is coming from the guy who wrote the Stars postseason preview). Partially I think it's because they finished third in the Pacific, which doesn't sound fantastic, but consider that after December 16, 2007 (Scott Niedermayer's debut), the Ducks finished their season 32-12-4, and the Sharks finished their season 32-13-6. It's a tough division to stay on top of, no doubt. Also, the Stars had the reputation of being a defense-first team, and few noticed that they scored the second-most goals in the western conference.

A lot of their success can be attributed to the range of forwards at head coach Dave Tippett's disposal. Morrow and Ribiero form a dangerous duo, and Lehtinen provides a Selke component. Secondary scoring is spread among Brad Richards, Mike Modano, Steve Ott, Sean Avery, Loui Eriksson, and Joel Lundqvist. The Stars did lose some useful forwards in Hagman and Miettinen (plus Jussi Jokinen in the Brad Richards deal), and it remains to be seen whether the addition of Sean Avery and a full year of Brad Richards can replace that scoring depth. One unknown factor is Swedish import Fabian Brunnstrom, who signed a lucrative deal in Dallas after being courted by a few NHL teams.

On the blueline, the Stars will start the season the same way they started their postseason -- with Sergei Zubov on the sidelines. The longtime Star defenseman is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his hip, while Phillipe Boucher works his way back into the lineup after appearing in only 38 games last year. With both those veteran blueliners missing time last spring, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman, and Mark Fistric all demonstrated the capability to step up and contribute. Really it is this young core of blueliners that figures to help carry the Stars through the next several years, and the veteran presence of Boucher and Zubov makes the Stars' blueline one of the more dangerous in the west.

The future looks bright for the Dallas franchise, even beyond their young NHL core. Earlier this month the Stars prospects won the Traverse City Tournament with an 8-3 blowout win in the final game over the Atlanta Thrasher prospects, with James Neal and Brunnstrom leading the way.

Who's on the hook: This is the final season of Sergei Zubov's deal and Phillipe Boucher's deal. Both defensemen are set to become unrestricted free agents next summer, and their futures may be decided by how young blueliners like Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric progress. Also, it remains to be seen how Dallas players and fans react to Sean Avery. He can help a team win, certainly, but provides a lot of public distraction as well.

Where they'll finish: It's a good question, and one that could largely get answered by the quality of teams in Phoenix, Anaheim, and San Jose. The Stars. largely playing without their best two defensemen, knocked out the Pacific's best in back-to-back series last spring, so they definitely can hold their own in head-to-head confrontations. Still, when it comes to regular season points accumulation, I'm not sure the Stars have the horsepower to keep pace with the Sharks in particular. I'd guess that the Stars fall short of the Pacific Division title and end up in a 4 or 5 seed, but we saw last year how dangerous they can be from that position.

Blogs to Watch:Five for Fighting, Andrew's Dallas Stars Page, Penalty Killing, The Shootout, Untypical Girls, Knee Jerk City, stars.hockeyanalysis.com, The Sign Girls' Weblog

Gratuitous YouTube Embed: One of my favorite team-sponsored YouTubes from last year; Nisky gets his ride pimped.

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