With ownership in place, Stars optimistic moving forward

FRISCO -- The Dallas Stars cleaned out their lockers in Frisco Wednesday and there were mixed emotions. There was disappointment that the team was packing it up and shutting it down for the season just as the Stanley Cup playoffs were getting underway.

“It’s very disappointing. We were very close but not able to make it,” said goaltender Kari Lehtonen. “It hasn’t hit me yet and it probably won’t until other teams start playing tonight. That’s going to be hard to see, them going for the Cup and we’re just eating popcorn and watching.”

There was some optimism as well. The past couple of years the Stars have headed into the offseason under the cloud of uncertain ownership. But now, with Tom Gaglardi firmly in place as the team’s owner, things are looking up for next season and beyond.

“It’s going to be nice to have an owner here this summer. Our future is bright,” said forward Jamie Benn. “We have a lot of good young players. You saw that in the last game. I think we’re going up. We’re going to keep progressing here and see what we can do.”

This is the fourth straight season the Stars have missed the playoffs, three of them under current GM Joe Nieuwendyk. But for the first time since he has taken over, Nieuwendyk will not have his hands tied by a tight budget and will have the backing of a strong owner.

“This summer is different than many summers because since day one that Tom Gaglardi took over you could feel that a cloud moved away from our organization,” said Nieuwendyk. “He’s passionate about winning, he cares about our group and we sensed that from the day he took over. There was a different buzz about our team and that is exciting, not only for the last couple months but looking ahead to next season and this summer.

“It’s a different dynamic in play this summer, having that stability, having that backing, now I feel like we’re a player again.”

The Stars, who are in a good position as far as the salary cap and have an owner who is willing to spend some to money if the situation is right, are expected to be an active player in the free agent market when it opens July 1. They should be a more active player when it comes to trade talks as well.

“The good news is we have flexibility. You need cap room and flexibility to be successful, if you don’t have you can’t,” said Stars president Jim Lites. “The difference between this year and last year there now is a guy there that you can call and say we have an opportunity to sign this player to this contract and he can make a difference for us for ten years. That opportunity didn’t exist before. That’s in the unrestricted free agent market.

“And, almost as important now, I think, is our opportunity to participate in is what I call the ‘we want to make a change but we’ve got no flexibility market,’ which is how this franchise acquired Brad Richards. A contract was stifling a team that overspent on a player, and it helps you get better. I think we’re there now. I think that is the biggest difference.”

As far as a budget for spending, Nieuwendyk said that is still to be determined. And there is still the question of what kind of system the Stars and the other 29 teams will be operating under when the league and the NHLPA negotiate a new CBA. The current one expires September 15.

The salary cap is expected to go up from the current level of $64.3 million prior to free agency on July 1, but the new system could bring changes and the possibility of a lower cap. Nieuwendyk said the Stars will have to play things smart and be prepared.

“We don’t know what the landscape is going to look like September 15, but what I will say is that we are well positioned as any team moving forward,” Nieuwendyk said. “We can’t say what the cap will be or what some of the dynamics that will be in play, but we are open for business and will be able to talk to a lot of teams about trades, free agency when it comes to July, and ways of making our team better."