Catching up with Marc Crawford

Dallas Stars coach Marc Crawford spent part of his summer in Europe. It was a trip that included visits to Italy, Greece, Spain and Monaco.

“It was great,” he said.

Monaco left an impression. He visited the Monaco Cathedral, where past sovereigns, including Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, are buried.

“That was kind of neat,” he said. “Monaco is a very affluent place, but it reminded me a lot of Quebec City.”

Now Crawford is back in North America. Last week it was Frisco, where he had meetings with the team’s coaching staff to prepare for the 2010-11 season, which will kick off next month with training camp in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

On the surface it appears to have been a quiet summer for the Stars, but Crawford said the team has been busy during the offseason looking for ways to improve the team.

“We know there’s no white knight coming in to save the day on the group,” Crawford said. “We’re focused in on the right things, which is how do we make improvements with what we have.”

Crawford, who will be in his second season as head coach of the Stars, said improvement can come in a variety of ways. Some of it can come through familiarity.

“From the standpoint of the players understanding who I am and what my wants are, that learning curve has been alleviated,” he said.

Crawford said improvement can come through a fresh perspective. The Stars made a move to bolster their coaching staff, adding Willie Desjardins as associate coach. He’ll join Crawford and assistants Charlie Huddy and Stu Barnes.

“He is a great experienced coach and has a great prairie work ethic,” Crawford said of Desjardins. “He’ll help demonstrate those attributes to our group. He’s going to help Charlie, Stu and he’s going to particularly help me.”

Then there are tweaks to the roster. At this point the Stars have made only a few changes. Twenty-one likely roster players return from last season’s team. They did add abrasive right wing Adam Burish, who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. Crawford said Burish, along with Ott, Krys Barch, Brian Sutherby and Brandon Segal, will give the Stars more of an edge.

“We want to see a much harder team to play against, a more determined group,” he said. “I think that will be a subtle improvement for our team.”

Two of the departures from the roster were significant. GM Joe Nieuwendyk opted not to bring back center Mike Modano and goaltender Marty Turco. That will open a new chapter for the Stars and Crawford said that there can be benefits.

“Moving on from some of the key guys that were such a big part of the Stars for so many years brings a sense of freshness. Now you can move forward and all these other people can take over the club now,” Crawford said. “It’s energizing. I think our guys are excited because when there are some of these older guys and these guys with such huge stature are around, you leave it to them to be the leaders. You leave it to them to be the people talking. Now guys know they have to be more involved. I think they are excited about the challenge. I know they are.

“I see it from our leaders like [Stephane] Robidas, [Brad] Richards, [Steve] Ott and I think it’s going to be really good for Brenden [Morrow] as well. As much as he is so tight with Marty and so close to Mike Modano, I think Brenden knows it’s his to direct. I see him taking a huge step forward for that reason and for the reason that he’s a full year past his major injury.”

And then there is improvement through players getting better. Crawford said the team has been working hard with individual players during the summer to foster improvement and to make sure players are at their best for the coming season.

“This has been one of the most intensive offseasons I’ve had with any team with individuals really trying to make improvements,” Crawford said.

Goaltending will be key to the Stars’ fortunes this season and Kari Lehtonen, who will take over as the team’s No. 1 netminder, has been working with goaltending coach Mike Valley. Lehtonen has hired a personal trainer, which has helped him shed ten pounds this offseason.

“The goaltender is the backbone of your team and he showed that he was a pretty good backbone for us at the end of the year,” Crawford said of Lehtonen. “If there is anybody we’re excited about it would be that position.”

The Stars have worked with defenseman Matt Niskanen, who struggled last season. Strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen has visited Niskanen a couple times during the summer. Huddy has been keeping in touch with Niskanen during the offseason as well.

“We’ve really put a plan in place for Matt so that he will make the improvements that will allow him to be a little bit more assertive, allow him to be a little bit more aggressive in his game,” said Crawford. “We know his ability. He’s shown how good he can be. But you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to improve. He’s given himself the opportunity, we think, to have a strong bounce back campaign.”

And the Stars are hoping to bounce back after missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Crawford expects another dogfight as far as playoff spots in the Western Conference, which will be highly competitive again.

The Stars finished 12th last season, seven points out of the final spot. Their inability to string together more than two wins in a row during the entire season didn’t help. Neither did a 1-5-1 stretch coming out of the Olympic break. There are dozens of games the team can look back on that could have gone another way. But there’s nothing they can do about that now. It’s time to look forward.

“We know that there are going to be four or five teams in the playoffs and that we are going to be in that group of nine or ten teams battling for three or four playoff spots,” he said. “That’s where we are, but at this time last year nobody thought Phoenix was going to be as good as they were. At this time last year nobody gave Colorado a lick of a chance. And everybody counted out Nashville. Well, we’ve got to be determined to be one of those teams next year. It’s already started with all the offseason stuff we are doing.”

In the days ahead, a look at the team’s goaltending, defensemen and forwards.