Dallas Stars Fans Starting to Feel Cautiously Optimistic?

It's been a tough summer for Dallas Stars fans. Another long summer following a disappointing regular season. The departures of Mike Modano and Marty Turco, along with what appears to be the impending retirement of Jere Lehtinen. The lack of any defensive upgrades via free agency, despite a glaring need on an otherwise promising roster. The ownership situation continues to become more convoluted and frustrating despite what we all believed should have been a simple sale process.

It all combined for an admittedly depressing summer, as Stars fans searched for anything to feel positive about. Any good news was immediately met with some bad to counter any positivity that could be found. For a team and a franchise that is decisively in fourth place among Dallas sports, with a fan base that is growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of forward momentum, the Stars are in danger of entering territory it will be increasingly hard to climb out of.

Yet as training camp breaks and the Dallas Stars prepare for the season opener in New Jersey on Friday night, we start to feel something new and different amongst fans -- and especially amongst the players and within the team. This training camp has been one of the best for the Stars in a long time and while there are still glaring issues that leave fans worried, these Dallas Stars are heading into the season with something closely resembling optimism.

This isn't the same set of good feelings we had in 2008, when the Stars were struggling with the pressures after a Western Conference Finals appearance. This is the feeling of a team that is obviously on the cusp of improvement after two seasons of disappointment, a young team that is fighting to take the next step after a couple of years of frustrating stagnation.

I've maintained all summer long that the Dallas Stars are a year away from truly getting back to the level that we are all used to. Despite the veteran leadership and production on this team, the amount of young talent on the team -- combined with the shortcomings on defense -- would seemingly predict a fight for the entire season in 2010-2011. Yet because of the talented nucleus of players on the Stars, it's not out of the realm of possibility to expect the Stars to begin their climb back to the top of the Pacific division next season.

What we're starting to see signs of now is that perhaps that climb isn't a year away. Perhaps that improvement might be coming as early as this season.

Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro appear to be reinvigorated and rededicated to getting back to the level of hockey Stars fans have been used to. These two finding their gamebreaking touch once more instantly transforms the Stars into a much more dangerous team than last season, when Brad Richards was asked to be the catalyst for the offense of the entire team. The Stars absolutely must possess two dangerous scoring lines to be effective and if Ribeiro can find a way to not only be productive in Crawford's system, but be a game changer as well, then the Stars will instantly see an improvement over the past few years.

Joe Nieuwendyk has managed to maintain a strong nucleus of young talent on the Stars with James Neal, Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, Steve Ott, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Tom Wandell all provided in the solid foundation for a team that should be very competitive for years to come. Yet it's the recent emergence of players that should be special in the future that truly has fans buzzing. Philip Larsen, Severin Blindenbacher, Aaron Gagnon and Tomas Vincour will not only provide production this season but will become even more important in years to come.

This future, one that involved more young talent than we've ever seen in the Dallas Stars franchise, will be special not just a few years from now but should be increasingly special throughout the 2010-2011 season. We've seen signs throughout the preseason that perhaps these Dallas Stars will be much more competitive than they're expected to be. A more focused team, a much more physical team all are signs of a team that is improving. Yet it's the play of one specific player that truly has fans feeling optimistic this week.

Kari Lehtonen ultimately played in two and a half preseason games. During every minute he was on the ice he was nothing short of brilliant. Stopping 75 of 77 shots in those three games, Lehtonen was the catalyst for a much improved penalty killing unit and was well on his was to a shutout before being replaced by Andrew Raycroft on Saturday night. Lehtonen appears to not only be healthy and focused, he's close to looking better than he ever has before in his career.

Last season the Stars lost too many close games, they allowed too many last-minute goals and lost way too many games in the shootout or overtime. Vastly improved goaltending will instantly help with all of those issues, while instantly providing a boost to the team's confidence on the ice. Kari Lehtonen, if he remains healthy, is apparently just on the cusp of having a truly great season.

It's only three games and it's only preseason, but it certainly is nice to be positive about the goaltending once more.

While the improvement between the pipes will be welcomed with open arms, it's the overall shift in attitude that should truly have fans salivating. Last season the Dallas Stars were soft; they allowed too many bad goals, too many last-second scores and allowed too many teams to just walk all over them. With the addition of Adam Burish, the Stars have a newfound sense of attitude that they are proudly utilizing this preseason. Standing up for teammates, not allowing team to get the upper hand physically -- these are all issues that appear to be fixed this season.

Of course, it's only preseason and there's a good chance that absolutely nothing transfers over to the regular season. If the Stars had looked horrible, then we would desperately be attempting spin it in a positive manner while giving excuses for the poor play. Since the Stars have done relatively well the past few weeks, however, it's increasingly tough not to become excited with the performances we've witnessed.

I'm not expecting the Stanley Cup. I'm not blindly devoted to the team I love.

Yet I can't help but sense something being built. We are still a few years away from truly seeing it come to fruition yet you can't ignore the feelings that that perhaps 2010 may be the season the Stars surprise the NHL.

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