With the exodus of long-time Dallas Stars captain, and the one-time (pun intended?) offensive guru, Mike Modano to the Detroit Red Wings, the Stars organization and fans were left scratching their heads: what now?
Answers are difficult to find. Coming off back-to-back seasons with under 90 points-culminating in missing the playoffs both years-the Stars are far from the Pacific Division juggernaut they once were. The last time the Stars missed the playoffs before 2008 was in 2001, when they finished with 90 points. Stars fans shook their heads once again as franchise goaltender Marty Turco signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks for just $1.3 million. Turco, a goalie with a proven track record, took a pay-cut in order to be on a winning team. Just after signing the deal with Chicago, Turco’s agent Kurt Overhardt simply stated, “Marty’s priority was joining a team that could win a Stanley Cup, and he chose Chicago.” Ouch, a definite slight to Stars’ fans. Now the Stars will rely on talented (but young and still unproven) netminder Kari Lehtonen; the signing of oft-streaky and secondhand goalie Andrew Raycroft did little to quell goaltending fears.
General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk confirmed that Dallas, still in ownership crisis, would stick to a $45 million salary budget this season-well below the NHL’s salary cap. Such statements would strike fear into any fan, but don’t sound the alarm just yet in Big-D.
Cheech: Still Smokin’?
Past seasons and early predictions do not always spell out future results (see: 2009 Colorado Avalanche). With upcoming young talent (Neal and Eriksson), the Stars could be ripe for a rebound season. Although a division title (considering the Pacific Division had three 100-point teams last year) seems delusional, the Stars in the West’s 6-8 spots at season’s end is possible. I can see my readers scoffing at this statement, but hear me out.
The training camp invitation awarded to Jonathan Cheechoo by Stars’ management could prove to be one of the most underestimated signings of the offseason. There is no doubt that Cheechoo has been a lost sheep compared to the 2005 Rocket Richard Trophy winner that recorded 56 goals. But, and this is a lofty but, #27 could prove to be a lynchpin for the Stars. Don’t expect to see Cheechoo record 50 goals, or even 40 for that matter, but a 30-goal outing would give the Stars something that has eluded them recently: depth. According to Dallas coach Marc Crawford, the Stars plan on using Cheechoo as the second line right-winger, paired with Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. Last season Ribeiro recorded 53 points in 66 games, while Morrow had 46 points in 76 games. A Morrow-Riberio-Cheechoo second line has potential, as all three are seasoned veterans, and could get decent scoring opportunities playing behind the Eriksson-Richards-Neal first line.
On the right-side Dallas was especially abysmal last season: Jere Lehtinen had the most points of any true Stars right-winger, and he recorded just 17 points. Cheechoo would be the only right-handed shot in the top two lines, and could fit in nicely on the power-play, which sorely lacked a right-handed shooter last year. Plagued by injuries in the past few seasons, Cheechoo said he feels healthy entering training camp, “This is the best I’ve felt coming into a camp in a long time,” Cheechoo said. “I need to prove that I can still do what I know how to do.” And as Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk rightfully pointed out: “You don’t score 56 goals in this league and not have something to your game.”
There is no doubt Cheechoo’s scoring has been on a tailspin since the 2005 season (he had just 5 goals and 14 points in 61 games with Ottawa last year, yikes!). But, the Stars and Cheechoo both look to turn a fresh page this upcoming season, and they may be able to help one another achieve that. With a team that has openly declared to undershoot the salary cap by $10 million, and has let go two of its franchise players this offseason, Jonathan Cheechoo could be a bright addition to the Stars roster this season.