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Chris Foster / ON THE NHL

Stars Are Finally Shining Up High

January 03, 2006|Chris Foster

DALLAS — Coach Dave Tippett was blunt. The Stars needed to align in the new NHL economic system.

"Whether the payroll is $65 million or $35 million, I expect our team to compete and win," Tippett said.

Dallas captain Mike Modano was honest. A $39-million salary cap?

"I don't even think about that stuff," Modano said. "We have a good hockey team here. Maybe I'll think about it again in two or three years."

And Dallas General Manager Doug Armstrong was pleased. He sees a team that is good in transition, whether that's going up and down the ice or working under a new collective bargaining agreement.

"That probably started two or three years ago," Armstrong said. "We knew there was going to be a new system. We didn't know exactly what it was going to look like, but we started getting ready."

In New Jersey and Colorado, the cutting and slashing have reduced the Devils and Avalanche from elite to mediocre. Even mediocre teams, such as the Mighty Ducks, had to do a financial tap dance just to remain mediocre.

And in St. Louis, sports fans spent the fall wondering which would implode first, the once-powerful Blues or Busch Stadium?

But the new NHL pretty much resembles the old NHL in Dallas. The Stars cut their payroll from $68 million in 2003-04 to $37.5 million this season, yet they remain one of the top teams in the Western Conference, even after a slow start.

The Stars are chasing the Kings, trying to win their eighth division title in the last 10 seasons, having won two Central and five Pacific Division titles in that time. Monday night, however, the Kings beat the Stars, 3-2, in overtime. "We were all kind of wondering if this [stuff] was going to work out," goaltender Marty Turco admitted.

"But we have a good team. They kept key guys and have young players who are cheaper."

Armstrong heard the labor rhetoric coming from Commissioner Gary Bettman and treated the "cost certainty" chatter as more than conspiracy talk. In 2003, he let defenseman Derian Hatcher to walk away as a free agent and traded defenseman Darryl Sydor to Columbus.

Last summer, Armstrong set priorities for his efforts. Modano and defenseman Sergei Zubov, yes. Pierre Turgeon and his $5-million option, no.

Modano signed a five-year, $17.25-million contract, and Zubov signed a three-year, $12-million contract. Armstrong also saw no reason to continue to pay Ron Tugnutt $2.5 million to be a backup goaltender.

"We just couldn't keep everybody at that pay scale," Armstrong said. "We pinpointed Modano as the leader of the franchise and Zubov as the leader of our defense. We got those two guys done, but we had to make some hard decisions for a couple years."

Some were wondering if those decisions had been the right ones after the Stars went 7-5-1 in October. They answered those questions by winning 13 of 15 games in November and early December.

"I would say that probably started with our goaltender," Armstrong said. "Marty has found his groove again."

Turco, whose contract expires after this season, had a 3.63-goals-against average in October. One of the NHL's best goaltenders at handling the puck, Turco found that part of his game was limited by the new rules. The Stars held him out of games to spend a week working out his problems.

"I think Marty felt all the new rules were directed at him," Tippett said. "We gave him some time off, and he was able to refocus."

Turco has dropped his goals-against average to 2.48 and has played well enough to be selected to Team Canada for the Olympics.

The big change, Modano said, is "our whole demeanor on the ice has changed since October."

A bigger change had already occurred upstairs.

Devil of a Time

After Larry Robinson resigned as New Jersey's coach because of stress that was causing him headaches, the on-ice migraine fell to General Manager Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello said he would take over the coaching duties temporarily. Nearly two weeks have passed and Lamoriello is still behind the bench.

There is a growing belief that Lamoriello is biding his time until after the World Junior Championships. Team Canada's coach, Brent Sutter, is considered a leading candidate for the Devils' job.

Lamoriello may also be getting an up-close look at what the Devils need. Here's a hint: defense.

The Devils are giving up more than a goal a game than they did the previous two seasons, and it is unlikely that goaltender Martin Brodeur's skills have deteriorated that much. More to the point, opponents no longer have a pair of Scotts to deal with. Defenseman Scott Stevens retired, and defenseman Scott Niedermayer signed with the Mighty Ducks.

Rocky Mountain Low

It has become apparent that Avalanche officials were not prepared for Patrick Roy's retirement.

David Aebischer's presence is not always announced by a flashing red light, it only seems that way. Patrick Budaj can be pronounced "Buddha" when he plays well, or "Boo-da" when he doesn't.

"The opportunity is definitely there," Avalanche Coach Joel Quenneville said after a 5-3 loss to the Kings last week. "Somebody's got to seize it."

The hope may be Slovakian-born Budaj. He carries some of the cockiness that served Roy well. Yet at 23, he is still green.

Last week, Budaj dodged the media for two days after giving up two goals on four King shots. He then had a solid performance in a 5-2 victory over Phoenix that kept the Avalanche in eighth place in the Western Conference.

"I tried to do my job and didn't try to put too much pressure on me," Budaj told reporters after the game. "That's not healthy."

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