The forwards were a strength for the Dallas Stars in 2009-10 and there's optimism the group can be more effective this season.
The forwards helped pushed the Stars to 11th in the league in scoring last season at 2.80 goals per game. That was fueled by several players who set or tied career marks for offensive production.
Center Brad Richards bounced back from an injury-plagued season to tie his career-high in points (91). His linemates had big seasons as well. Right wing Loui Eriksson, who is establishing himself as one of the top young forwards in the game, set a career-high in points (71). Left wing James Neal saw both his goals (27) and points (55) totals increase in his second NHL season.
The Stars believe things could be better in 2010-11. First, a couple of their top offensive weapons are in a position to rebound from subpar campaigns.
Captain Brenden Morrow, who was coming off ACL surgery, saw his productivity drop last season, picking up just 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists).
“I see him taking a huge step forward for the reason that he’s a year past that major injury,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford.
Center Mike Ribeiro’s numbers were down last season as well and he missed considerable time due to a throat contusion.
Ribeiro and Morrow bouncing back would be a big boost to the Stars’ second line, which would make the Stars an even more effective team up front.
Then there is center Tom Wandell, who was off to a fine rookie campaign but was lost to an ACL injury in January.
“Wandell coming back for us is significant. He was really coming into his own and playing quite well,” said Crawford. “That’s a significant improvement for us. He’s a defensive guy that can play against good people with speed and good people with skill. He’s such a smart player.”
Benn helped fill the void at center last season, moving to the middle due to the injuries. He’s likely to see action at both wing and center this season.
“The good thing about Jamie is he has the ability to play both and it’s his competitiveness that we like most of all,” said Crawford.
And competitiveness is another are where Crawford and GM Joe Nieuwendyk think the Stars will see improvement in the forward ranks. The addition of Adam Burish, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago last season, was a move to bolster that area.
“There are guys in this league you notice because they are not fun to play against. Adam Burish is one of those guys,” said Nieuwendyk. “We have a number of people that are not going to be fun to play against. That's kind of what I envision. We're getting there.”
Here’s Crawford’s take.
“I do think we needed an addition of toughness, grit and determination, that type of player that is difficult to play against,” he said. “We got that in the re-signing of [Krys] Barch, the signing of Burish and the continued improvement of Ott. Looking at how competitive Jamie Benn was in the AHL playoffs, all those things lead me to feel good about where our aggressiveness is and where our determination level is.
“That’s where I think one of the subtle improvements in our team will be. We won’t be quite as easy to play against as we were in the past. We were a team that relied a little more on skill than determination.”
“They’re relentless, they do the right things, they play hard and they’re no fun to play against,” said Crawford. “You’ve got to complement them with people that can skate and think. Wandell is that type of player.”
Toby Petersen probably fits that mold of a guy who skates and thinks as well.
Time will tell how everything fits together. The Stars have 14 NHL forwards on the roster as they prepare for training camp next month. It would be 15 if Jere Lehtinen decides to return, and that means someone would have to be moved. Either way, there will be some good battles in camp.
“It will be good competition and it will bring out the best in our group,” said Crawford.
The departure of center Mike Modano, who was not offered a contract by the Stars and has signed with the Detroit, will create some opportunities as well. Wandell will help fill the void at center. Benn could take up some of that role as well.
There are also opportunities on the power player, where Modano ranked fourth in ice time per game among forwards last season.
“Jamie Benn will get a fair bit of the opportunity,” Crawford said. “Jamie didn’t play a lot of power play last year and he’ll get the power play minutes that Mike had. On the other side of it, I think it gives more responsibility to everybody. It will start with Brenden Morrow and continue with Mike Ribeiro to be that half-board guy on the power play. I think it gives a little more continuous opportunity to James Neal and to Steve Ott.”
Crawford said with Richards continuing to play point on the power play, Ribeiro, Morrow, Eriksson, Neal, Ott and Benn likely will be the forwards on the top two power play units. But a guy like Fabian Brunnstrom can benefit now that he’ll have a chance to move up the pecking order and possibly become the seventh forward in the power play rotation.
“Last year he was so far down he was behind the seventh and eighth guys. I think that’s part of the reason he didn’t score as much. He’s going to get more of an opportunity to play in offensive roles this year,” Crawford said. “We know we have to move forward. We’re not kidding ourselves with where we are as an organization. We’re still developing, but in order to develop you’ve got to give the younger people the opportunity and that’s what this is about.”
As far as depth, there are some players who played with the Texas Stars last season and saw a few NHL games last season.
“Francis Wathier played for us last year and keeps getting better all the time,” said Crawford. “You love guys like that because they never count themselves out. “
Center Aaron Gagnon led Texas in scoring last season.
“He took a good step last year and he played so well,” said Crawford. “The one thing we know is he plays well with Jamie Benn. “
Right wing Ray Sawada also saw a couple of NHL games last season.
There are a couple of other Texas players who are getting closer to possibly playing in the NHL one day.
“Colton Sceviour’s got a chance,” Crawford said. “There’s a tough kid, Luke Gazdic, who we think has a chance to play some day.”
Tomas Vincour, a right wing coming out of juniors, is a player the Stars are high on as well.
Dallas Stars Forwards
Dallas Stars forwards for the 2010-11 season