For the Dallas Stars faithful, the past three years have been a test in patience, frustration and optimism. Ever since the Western Conference Finals appearance in June of 2008, the Stars have been fighting against raised expectations along with a roster whose overall talent level has gone down compared to the one that enjoyed playoff success three years ago. The ownership situation turned into an unexpected nightmare and suddenly the Stars became one of the more frugal teams in the NHL.
In a town where winning is everything the Stars have been left behind. With aging veterans being cut loose and the team unable to shore up the roster through free agency or big trades, because of severe financial restrictions, fans have seen the Western Conference and the Pacific division improve significantly while the Stars continued to struggle with just about the same roster year after year.
The Stars have not been a bad team -- in fact, they've still managed to put together winning seasons every year despite missing the playoffs. Last season the Stars were the first NHL team to get 95 points in a season and still miss the playoffs. It's a small consolation, however, especially considering how the team played in the one game that could have sent them to the postseason for the first time in three years.
Now we look ahead to the future. There has been too much looking back, too many memories of the glory days of the Stars that fans desperately hold onto while the current Stars struggle to build a new base of fans. The days of Modano, Hull and Lehtinen are gone yet fans still grasp firmly onto the memories of days gone by while the Stars fight to build a new identity and a new future for this franchise.
For the first time in years, the future is bright. Dallas Stars fans, forever looking back at 1999, should now turn their heads to a hopeful future.
Two years ago, I wrote an article that seemingly predicted the struggles that were ahead. Just over a year after that playoff appearance, it was apparent that the Stars were headed into unfamiliar territory as a team on the bubble -- something I questioned when looking at how the fans would continue to support this team.
This season, so much has changed. A new General Manager with a new direction for his team. A new coach with a new system. And a team that struggles with consistency each and every night. For a team that has for so long lived at the top of the standings and for so long has operated at a high level of competition and success, seeing the Stars flounder two seasons in a row is something fans have never had to endure before.
Yet Dallas Stars fans are unlike other sports fans in the area. They are some of the most loyal and knowledgeable hockey fans in North America, and there is not doubt that they will be there to support their team even when things are at their worst. Yet the Dallas Stars have never had to deal with the possibility of losing the fringe fan base, those that are not fanatics yet enjoy a good hockey game. And it's those fans that are failing to show up game after game.
The Dallas Stars are mired in a financial swamp. Years of operating at a high level of spending, despite having high levels of revenue have left the team with seemingly nothing left in the reserve tanks. The seasons of free agency spending and of operating as tightly against the salary cap as possible, while running a state of the art arena had forced ticket prices to rise to levels that box out the casual fan. And it's not just ticket prices that were affected; the Stars have cut back on funding for the events that made this team so popular just a decade ago.
This was written two full years ago, just before the beginning of the Marc Crawford era. We were hopeful and a bit optimistic but at the same time we had to face the reality of what was ahead. It's amazing to think of just how predictive my post would become as the Stars not only became "mired in a financial swamp", this team became completely unable to bolster a decent roster with free agent help and played two straight seasons with the lowest-paid defense in the NHL.
The attendance had already started to slip at that time, although I doubt any of us could have predicted just how bad it would get. The casual fan has apparently abandoned this franchise, frustrated over the lack of postseason success and the inability of this team to make a long term/high cost investment to winning. Combined with a struggling economy along with "better", more successful methods of spending money on sports teams in the area, and suddenly the Stars have had one of the worst drops in attendance in the NHL.
It's also not getting any better anytime soon.
Fans were discouraged with the Stars letting Mike Modano leave via free agency, despite obvious evidence that he was no longer the player he once was. For many Stars fans, Modano was the sole reason for loving this sport and without him on the team it was tough for them to justify coming to the games and spending money on a team without their favorite player. This past summer, the Stars were also forced to watch Brad Richards walk away to head to New York -- and now there's nothing but talk of how this team will struggle without him.
There is still no owner, although that will be resolved in just a few months.
The team is still spending near the minimum amount required by the CBA and the NHL.
The Stars are still without that "superstar" player that is so needed to sell the sport in a town like Dallas.
The Stars are still thought to be mediocre, a bubble team that will struggle to make the playoffs.
The future, however, is bright.
For the first time in years, we can look ahead as fans and be excited about the future.
Ever since he was hired in the summer of 2009, Joe Nieuwendyk has had a plan. He hasn't had the finances or the franchise support he desperately needed overall, but he's had a very specific plan for the type of team he wanted the Dallas Stars to become. It was a long term plan, based on drafting players that fit the mold for the type of team he desired to build.
At the same time, he had to keep the current team competitive. He needed the Stars to make the postseason and he did his best to put together a team that could do so. Unfortunately, his first decision as a G.M. turned out to be his worst, and the hiring of Marc Crawford never turned into the success we all wanted it to be. Instead, the Stars struggled with adversity and the coaching was lacking, despite a team that actually possessed a relatively high level of talent.
As we approach the 2011-12 season, more change has occurred in the past three months that at any one time in the history of this franchise in Dallas. The Stars fired Crawford and hired Glen Gulutzan, a 40-year old coach who never stood behind the bench at a level higher than the AHL. The Stars watched Brad Richards walk away and turned to free agency to revamp a top-heavy lineup -- using the requirement to meet the cap floor to suddenly turn the Stars into an incredibly deep team overall.
The Stars are also coming off a highly successful and incredibly exciting draft, when suddenly Nieuwendyk's vision for this franchise came into view. In just three years, he's put the framework in place for a highly talented, very large and physical prospect system that has all the pieces needed to make an organization successful. The franchise goaltender, the cornerstone defenseman and a group of forwards that can score just as well as they hit.
When we think of what this team could look like in three years, we see visions of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks -- teams built through the draft and bolstered with free agents that fill in the gaps with experience and leadership. It's an exciting thought and it's an approach the Stars have never taken before as a franchise -- especially considering how much patience is needed in order to get to point in time when the youth takes over the team.
Joe Nieuwendyk understands this and while he's kept his eye on the future, he's realized just how important it is for this team to be successful now. He couldn't get the "big names" in free agency that everyone would love and he couldn't keep Brad Richards, but the Stars suddenly have a deep and competitive roster that is perhaps better overall that the team put on the ice the past few seasons. It's impossible to replace a player like Richards but the Stars will attempt to do so not with one player but with a team approach, attempting to fill in the offensive gap with relentless play from four rolling lines.
The Stars have five new players on the roster and several young players knocking on the door of the NHL. Their arrival has coincided with the arrival of coach Gulutzan and initial signs are that his message has been received and understood.
While everyone realizes no conclusions can be made from the preseason, a 6-1 record while playing high-flying offense and stout defense should leave anyone excited and optimistic. There have been nothing but raves for Gulutzan and his coaching staff as it is suddenly obvious what has been missing from this team the past few seasons.
The Dallas Stars fans want success. They look to the past to grasp onto the glory we all shared and hold onto it with dear life while watching the current team struggle.
Yet, as we start to head into a new era for Dallas Stars hockey, we need the fans to approach the future with an open mind. Always keep those great memories fresh and dear to your heart, but embrace the team that is taking the ice this season and give them the support they so desperately need and deserve. The Stars will have to do their part as well and winning is the best solution to curing the aching in the souls of all the Stars fans residing in North Texas and abroad.
Nothing is going to be fixed overnight. It's a long, hard road to return to where the Stars were the toast of the town in Dallas and it's going to take a long time to win over the fans that have walked away.
Yet there are new fans out there, young sports fans that have no memory of the great years in the 1990's. Young fans desperate for glory of their own, to watch a team be built from mediocrity to champions. The want to ride alongside the Stars in a journey to success, to watch the team progress from where it is now to the glory we see in the future.
Today, this week, this season -- this is the start of that journey.