It's now been two straight seasons out of the playoffs for the Dallas Stars, a trend that general manager Joe Nieuwendyk would like stop in its tracks, but it won't be easy.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Stars, operating on a tight budget, could do this summer to improve their playoff chances for 2010-2011.
In the Stars' glory days, they were big spenders, bringing in free agents, with little concern for the costs involved. Now, with Tom Hicks selling the team, that's a process that demands fiscal belt-tightening.
"We really can't assume anything concerning ownership," Joe Nieuwendyk told the Dallas Morning News at season's end, "So we make all of our plans for next year based on the same budget we had this year (about $45 million)."
The Stars have a quality group of forwards already, so in an ideal world, augmenting with some defence would be enough to make them a playoff team, but if the budget is going to be in the $45-million range, and 27-goal-scorer James Neal will be looking for a raise as restricted free agent, then there's not a lot of room for Nieuwedyk to add to this roster, without subtracting.
Budgetary concerns also make for a challenging decision when it comes to the Stars' franchise player for the last two decades, as Mike Modano looked like he might be ready to hang 'em up at season's end, but hasn't made any such announcement. There have been rumours of Modano being involved with a new Stars ownership group.
Nieuwendyk is ready for change if it comes. "We're probably going to have a few changes, and I believe we are in a place where transition can make us better and new leaders can emerge," Nieuwendyk told the Dallas Morning News.
Of course, if a well-heeled owner takes over the team at some point this summer, maybe the Stars' purse strings will be loosened and there will be greater flexibility when it comes to off-season acquisitions.
Otherwise, the plan of attack is likely going to require some creativity from Stars management as they try to improve their defensive play enough to get back to the postseason.
Joe Nieuwendyk/Marc Crawford
Brad Richards tied a career-high with 91 points last season, including 40 on the power play. For all the points Richards scores, it was also the third time in the last four years that he's registered a double-digit minus rating, so his all-around play isn't yielding ideal results.
Loui Eriksson has broken through as a scoring winger, tallying 65 goals and 134 points over the past two seasons. He's not overly aggressive, but has played every game for the last two years and is a valuable part of the team's core.
Skilled centre Mike Ribeiro's 53 points represented his lowest total since 2005-2006, but he was limited to 66 games by a January throat injury. Even so, Ribeiro still had 23 power play points and played in all situations for the Stars.
With a dearth of playmaking centres around the league, Ribeiro could be marketable, but if the Stars are aiming to contend next year, Richards and Ribeiro down the middle is a decent starting point.
20-year-old Jamie Benn had a strong rookie season, scoring 22 goals, 41 points and proving to be very effective creating turnovers on the forecheck. Provided he doesn't suffer a sophomore jinx, Benn should continue to play an important role and see an increase in ice time.
Captain Brenden Morrow plays hard and is coming off the sixth 20-goal season of his career, but also went through a 28-game stretch in the middle of the year during which he scored one goal in 28 games. He remains a cornerstone player, but the 31-year-old may be more of a complementary scorer.
In the last couple of seasons, Steve Ott has shown more of a scoring touch, putting up a career-high 22 goals last season (after 46 points the year before), though last season's career-low minus-14 could suggest that Ott may have been asked to take on too much responsibility.
23-year-old Tom Wandell was enjoying a fine, if understated, rookie season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in January. He could be a solid third-line performer, provided he's healthy.
Toby Petersen had a nice year as a role player, managing a career-best nine goals and, just as importantly, maintaining a plus rating despite minimal offensive output.
26-year-old journeyman Brandon Segal played in a career-high 44 games, 19 after he was picked up off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings and he's a useful banger on the fourth line.
Brian Sutherby plays a limited role and hasn't played more than 50 games since 2006-2007, but he he's a responsible checker and adds size and toughness to the lineup.
With 51 goals in his first two seasons, James Neal is a burgeoning power forward. Though he slumped down the stretch, scoring three goals in his last 23 games, Neal can create turnovers on the forecheck and is well on his way to becoming an annual 30-goal scorer.
Following his free agent tour in the spring of 2008, Fabian Brunnstrom struggled at times as a rookie, yet still managed 17 goals. Last season, he managed just two goals in 44 games and his lack of progress through two years in the league puts his future in doubt.
So long as they don't subtract from the top of their depth chart, the Stars don't need to bring in any scorers, but could use a third-liner if Mike Modano is indeed calling it quits and an enforcer might be worthwhile as well.
Colby Armstrong or Alexei Ponikarovsky would be some free agent forwards worth considering that might add some depth, with a little additional scoring punch. A right-handed face-off guy like Scott Nichol or Jamal Mayers could be on the wishlist too.
When it comes to enforcers, if Krys Barch doesn't come back, the Stars could look to Shawn Thornton, Brian McGrattan or Jody Shelley (among others) to fulfill the role of policeman.
Without a better option to handle the job, Stephane Robidas ends up quarterbacking the Stars power play even though it's not necessarily an ideal fit for his skill set.
The 33-year-old is a warrior who hits and blocks shots like no one else while handling a heavy workload, but would likely be better off with another premier defender on the roster to take some pressure off him.
Mark Fistric is another battler on the blueline and his solid play in limited duty earned him more playing time as the season went along. His plus-27 rating was a welcome surprise. Continued development is all that should be expected from the 23-year-old.
Steady progress and increasing responsibility has been the mark of Trevor Daley's career thus far and he played more than 22 minutes per game last season. He's not physical, but uses his mobility to his advantage. Like Robidas, though, he'd be aided by another top-flight blueliner to lean on.
34-year-old Latvian defender Karlis Skrastins plays a no-nonsense defensive game, but he's limited offensively, having never scored more than 18 points in any of his ten NHL seasons. He's reliable, but his performance ceiling isn't particularly high.
Stuck as the Stars' seventh defenceman last season, Jeff Woywitka only saw action in 36 games and didn't distinguish himself when he did play. He's reasonably-priced for a depth role and has good size, though he doesn't use it enough.
Nicklas Grossman is an emerging defensive presence, but with 26 points in 222 career games, he's a virtual non-factor with the puck.
The Stars have no shortage of defencemen who offer little to nothing to their attack. One of those who was supposed to provide the puckhandling element, Matt Niskanen, had a terrible season, with a career-low 15 points and minus-15 rating.
Niskanen is still just 23, so he could bounce back, but he could also be expendable if the Stars don't want to wait to find out.
There's no question that the Stars have enough NHL defencemen, but they need another high-calibre blueliner, particularly one capable of handling power play time.
Among free agents, perhaps Paul Martin or Dan Hamhuis would be appealing, but would come at a significant cost and that will depend on whether the Stars are in a position to spend. If not, the defence may need to get improved via a trade that moves a higher-priced forward out the door.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
By dealing for Kari Lehtonen, the Stars made their goaltending bed and now that he's signed for the next three seasons, they're going to have to lie in it.
If he can stay healthy, Lehtonen has a chance to be an above-average starting goaltender, but he's surpassed 45 starts just once in five NHL seasons.
Given Lehtonen's injury history, though, the Stars will have to bring in a proven veteran backup; someone who can handle a starting role for a period of time if Lehtonen gets hurt again.
Free agents like Jose Theodore, Martin Biron and Johan Hedberg would be among the veterans capable of handling a heavier workload if need be.
||32-57-89,+36, 66 GP
||Vastra Frolunda (SEL)
||1-9-10,+6, 42 GP
||14-33-47,+3, 74 GP
||9-22-31,+11, 80 GP
||22-7-4, 2.28 GAA, .910 SVPCT, 35 GP
||29-25-4, 3.52 GAA, .903 SVPCT, 62 GP
||13-12-25,+6, 63 GP
||27-31-58,+19, 78 GP
||29-19-48,+6, 67 GP
||1-2-3,-2, 26 GP
Scott Glennie is the best of the scoring prospects in the Stars system. The eighth overall pick in 2009, Glennie may need some seasoning in the AHL, but he's a valued piece of their future.
Danish defenceman Philip Larsen got into a couple of games with the Stars at the end of the season. He may take some time to develop, but has promise as a puck-moving defenceman and, as noted, the Stars organzation isn't exactly overrun with those.
Perttu Lindgren could be on the verge of landing a spot with the Stars. The 22-year-old Finnish centre plays a solid two-way game and, at the very least, could be available in a fill-in role.
Though he could use more time in the minors to develop his offensive game, Colton Sceviour is already a sound defensive winger in his first year as a pro.
Richard Bachman spent most of his first pro campaign in the ECHL, getting regular starts; the 22-year-old should get more action in the American Hockey League next season and will get competition from Tyler Beskorowany, who is graduating from major junior and was a workhorse (playing 62 games) this season.
A third-round pick in 2007, Sergei Korostin scored 13 goals in 63 games in his first year as a pro. Like many Stars prospects, he needs more time before being considered for a spot with the Stars.
The leading scorer for the Stars' AHL affiliate, Aaron Gagnon has to be considered among the Stars' prospects for next season, even if only for organizational depth purposes.
Czech winger Ondrej Roman played three years in the Western Hockey League before returning to the Czech Republic. He'll need some regular playing time in the AHL to gauge his development.
Tomas Vincour has good size and is skilled enough to have scored 29 goals in the WHL, but with only 48 points in a major junior season, he has more room for his game to grow.
Hard-working winger Raymond Sawada has put in a couple of seasons in the AHL, earning five game trials with the Stars each year but, with 19 points in 60 games last year, his upside is limited.
Some of the Stars better prospects are still in the collegiate ranks. Fresh out Yale, small forward Sean Backman scored 77 goals in 122 games while Alex Chiasson (Boston University), Curtis McKenzie (Miami-Ohio), Austin Smith (Colgate) and Reilly Smith (Miami-Ohio) are some forwards with offensive promise that are expected to be in school again next season.
11th - Jeff Skinner, Jon Merrill, Mikael Granlund.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Stars have approximately $42.0M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: One top nine forward, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Stars needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Jamie Benn, Tom Wandell, Karlis Skrastins, Jeff Woywitka, Alex Auld.
TRADE MARKET Mike Ribeiro, Fabian Brunnstrom, Matt Niskanen.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.