A shocking fall from grace left the Dallas Stars on the outside looking in at the 2009 NHL playoffs.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Stars could do this summer in an attempt to return to their more typical postseason position.
Last season started off on the wrong foot, due in some part to Sean Avery, but even after Avery was gone, the Stars couldn't get in a groove. Injuries played a part, and ineffective goaltending from Marty Turco played a part, so there is reason to think that good health and a bounceback season from Turco would be enough.
On the other hand, taking a stand-pat position when coming off a 12th-place finish in the Western Conference isn't going to raise expectations much.
Complicating matters for the Stars is that owner Tom Hicks has run into some financial challenges that may prevent Dallas from spending right to the salary cap.
Co-General Manger Brett Hull admitted as much, telling the Dallas Morning News, "I can guarantee you it isn't going to be to the cap," when discussing next season's budget.
Even on a budget, the Stars have a playoff-calibre roster, when healthy, so making a few savvy acquisitions in the off-season (perhaps something that works out a tad better than the Sean Avery fiasco) could result in a fairly dramatic turnaround for next season.
Now, it's up the league's only co-GMs to make the right moves.
Les Jackson and Brett Hull/Dave Tippett
Top Prospects: Jamie Benn (46-36-82, plus-27 in 56 GP; Kelowna-WHL), Ondrej Roman (10-22-32, plus-21 in 32 GP; Spokane-WHL), Tom Wandell (15-26-41, plus-15 in 51 GP; Timra-SEL), Perttu Lindgren (5-19-24, minus-5 in 49 GP; Lukko Rauma-FNL)
His career progress was steady, if a little slow, then Loui Eriksson broke through in his third season as a first-line finisher. Just as important, Eriksson is a reliable two-way player and he was far and away the Stars' leading sniper even though he wasn't typically on the first power play unit.
Following his breakout 2007-2008 season, Mike Ribeiro's all-around game slipped some without Brenden Morrow riding shotgun on his wing, but there's no reason to complain about 78 points from the playmaking pivot.
Injuries forced Steve Ott into a more prominent role and he thrived, scoring a career-best 19 goals and 46 points. He's still an agitator, but his improved offensive production makes him much more valuable if he can build on his career season.
A string of injuries limited Brad Richards to just 56 games and he continues to have challenges defensively (he hasn't been a plus player since the lockout), but he can handle a heavy workload and he forms an offensively capable 1-2 punch down the middle with Ribeiro.
After a terrific performance in the 2008 playoffs, team captain Brenden Morrow only played 18 games last season and the Stars missed his relentless presence. If Morrow and Richards return healthy next season, that would be an obvious upgrade to a Stars offence that frequently had trouble scoring.
James Neal ranked second among NHL rookies with 24 goals, providing a sense of optimism that he could develop into a power forward. However, the 21-year-old will likely have time to grow into the role once the Stars have a full lineup.
Smooth-skating Mike Modano will be 39 next season, the final year on his contract. His minus-13 rating was worst on the team, though some of that can be attributed to frequently being saddled with inexperienced wingers. Modano still has the skills to contribute, but more as a role player, who can be used in any situation, but isn't necessarily going to warrant first-line power play time at this stage of his career.
While Fabian Brunnstrom has natural offensive talent, it remains to be seen if he's going to develop enough of an all-around game to land a regular spot in the lineup. He could be a 30-goal scorer, he could be minus-20; he could be both.
He doesn't provide much offence, but Brian Sutherby is a fine checking centre, with good size and toughness; the kind of role player every team needs.
Toby Petersen is a solid enough depth player, but with 55 points in 220 games since breaking into the league in 2000-2001, he's going to forever be in a battle for a roster spot.
Tough guy Krys Barch isn't a true heavyweight, but don't tell him that, as he doesn't pick his spots when dropping the gloves. He was also competent in his limited ice time, though he may not get in 72 games again if Stars forwards have better health.
In an effort to balance out the scoring, the Stars may want to dip into the free agent market, if they have the budget to do so. With an overflow of left shots up front, the focus needs to be on right-shooting scorers, which should make one of Steve Sullivan, Brian Gionta, Ales Kotalik and Jason Williams appealing at the right price. If healthy, Jere Lehtinen would figure to be an option to return as well.
The Stars' best prospect that could make the jump, and make an impact, could be Jamie Benn, who is following up a strong regular season with an outstanding playoff for Kelowna in the Western Hockey League.
Top Prospects: Ivan Vishnevskiy (6-13-19, minus-5 in 67 GP; Peoria-AHL), Philip Larsen (2-15-17, plus-7 in 53 GP; Vastra Frolunda-SEL).
When he first broke into the league, there wouldn't have been any thought to him making an NHL All-Star Game, but he did in 2008-2009. While he's not necessarily an All-Star calibre defenceman, he's very valuable thanks to his combination of mobility and willingness to battle physically.
Trevor Daley continues to make steady progress and he's become a solid top-four defenceman though, like Robidas, he's under 6-feet tall as well and doesn't play with the same edge as Robidas.
While Robidas and Daley are solid, they don't have the same kind of offensive potential that Matt Niskanen possesses. Niskanen needs to get stronger, his work in the defensive zone is inconsistent and his minus-11 rating was worst among Stars defenders last season. Nevertheless, he scored 35 points to lead Stars defencemen and he's still just 22 years-old.
Nicklas Grossman has shown promise as a possible part of a shutdown pairing, with his willingness to play the body and block shots, but he's not there yet. He'll just need some time to develop into a more prominent role.
Journeyman Andrew Hutchinson is serviceable as a depth defenceman because he has decent size and can handle the puck, but he hasn't ever played well enough defensively to establish a regular turn on an NHL blueline.
Though he hasn't yet established a regular spot in the lineup, Mark Fistric provides much-needed size and nastiness. He doesn't try to do too much with the puck, which is probably a good strategy.
Top prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy played well enough in his brief late-season audition to warrant consideration for a regular spot on next year's team.
If the Stars are inclined to hit the free agent market, they could benefit from a few of the premier free agent defencemen like Jay Bouwmeester, Mattias Ohlund, Mike Komisarek or Francois Beauchemin as all have size, experience and the ability to handle major minutes.
Top Prospect: Richard Bachman (14-11-10, 2.63 GAA, .914 SVPCT in 35 GP)
It was an incongruous season for Marty Turco, as he played a career-high 74 games, despite posting the highest goals against average (2.81) and matching the lowest save percentage of his career (.898). He'll be 34 by next season and is heading into the final year of his contract, so the Stars could start looking at other alternatives in goal, whether that means a more accomplished backup to push him or perhaps signing a free agent replacement while shopping Turco.
Tobias Stephan was only granted five starts over the entire season and didn't do much in those games to generate excitement about his NHL future.
There aren't any blue chip goaltending prospects in the organization, so the Stars may want to sign a couple of goaltenders in the off-season, just to add organizational depth, with Swedish free agent Jonas Gustavsson certainly one reasonable target.
8th - Magnus Paajaarvi-Svensson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nazem Kadri, Jared Cowen.
The Stars have approximately $38-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Stars needed last year: Depth forwards, depth defenceman
Who did they add? James Neal, Fabian Brunnstrom, Sean Avery.
Marty Turco, Brad Richards.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca