Avs, Stars challenge stability to the core

DALLAS -- As the series between the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche has progressed, comparisons to the back-to-back, seven-game Western Conference finals series between the franchises in 1999 and 2000 have been trotted out continuously.

The problem with that?

There aren't very many players still around to ask about them. The Avalanche and Stars each have only five players remaining from the 2000 conference final. Colorado has Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Adam Foote, Alex Tanguay and
Milan Hejduk. Dallas' remaining five are Mike Modano, Richard Matvichuk, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov and Brenden Morrrow.

Especially in the Avalanche's case, they represent the "core" and part of a philosophy that the first priority is to identify the indispensable, retain them and fill in around them -- even if the dressing room should be fitted with a revolving door.

The Stars' approach has been more varying, given the fluctuations in financial aggressiveness from ownership, which has included the expensive wave of free-agent signings, then the half-hearted attempt to re-sign Derian Hatcher -- who could have made a huge difference in this series, especially in front of the net.

But as with most high-payroll and recently elite franchises, the issues on the table for both teams is whether they will have to involuntarily break up that core under terms of the next collective bargaining agreement.

Or, for the Avalanche, whether Forsberg will make that decision himself by buying a one-way ticket home to Sweden.

"You never know, with the lockout and a few guys who are in the final years of their contracts," said Forsberg, who has maneuvered to keep his options open after this season by insisting on a one-year contract that indeed expires. "Guys on other teams probably feel the same way, too. But we've got to look at it like our last chance to win it. Maybe there's not a lockout next season and we have a good team. But you're never sure if you're going to be such a good team again. So we have to make sure we do everything we can to win the Cup."

With the Avalanche seeming to awaken from their late-season malaise, in part because of the returns to the lineup of Tanguay and crucial role player Andrei Nikolishin, Colorado has a 2-1 lead in the series -- and the knowledge that the Avalanche never have blown a 2-0 lead since the franchise arrived in Denver. (They have blown a couple of 3-1 leads, though, including against the Wild a year ago.)

But if the Stars start making Avalanche goalie David Aebischer work a lot harder and make second saves, and they do a better job of limiting traffic in front of Marty Turco, this series still could become more reminiscent of those back-to-back conference finals matchups.

In 2000, Adam Deadmarsh's deflection caromed off the post in the final 10 seconds of Game 7, enabling the Stars to hold off the Avs and force Ray Bourque to debate whether he should retire or return for one more try at that elusive taste from the Stanley Cup.

The taunting chants of "Eddie's better!" came from the Reunion Arena seats, backing up Ed Belfour's view that he hadn't gotten his due in comparisons to Patrick Roy over the years.

Ken Hitchcock and the Stars moved on to the Cup finals, while Colorado coach Bob Hartley was the subject of some grousing within his organization because of the largely unfair belief that he had come up short after being provided with the best talent in the league.

Right. All those men and many more involved in both of those series are gone, moved along. Retired. Traded. Fired.

Though these franchises have undergone stunning turnovers for winning teams, and the Devils, for example, still have 10 members of the 2000 championship team, changing on the fly is the norm. Stability went into the storage room with the moth-bitten and musty sweaters, even before the North Stars landed in Texas and the Nordiques shifted to Denver. But the similarities involving the Avalanche and Star organizations are striking, and the exceptions are instructional about the makeup of a sport heading for a lockout. The turnover, even for elite teams, has been dizzying, and it might seem like the good old days after a new collective bargaining agreement is in place.

Colorado's retain-the-core approach has been more consistent, and the offseason signings of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya were exceptional, resulting from their willingness to accept "bargain" salaries in a package deal. Otherwise, Colorado generally has preferred making deadline deals for free-agents to be, then re-signing those they want to keep; and also moving mountains to keep its own high-profile players.

"The recipe has worked for 10 years," Lacroix said.

The Stars went through that wave of free-spending that paid off with Bill Guerin, but had mixed results, and then slightly retrenched.

"You look at the guys who are left on each team, and they're very important," said Tanguay, a rookie in the Avalanche's aborted 2000 playoff run. "They're core kind of guys that you can kind of build a team around. It's a little different around those of us who are still left, but you look at the players still left, and they're still a big part of this team.

"If you get guys like Modano, Sakic or Forsberg, you have to keep those guys and build a team around those guys. That's what Dallas is trying to do and what we're trying to do. It's a business. It's the other guys, the role players, who are going to move around. It's just become a different game."

At a Stars practice, Zubov said: "The best thing you can do is keep the core players together, and build the team around them."

Before this season, the Stars -- newly financially self-conscious under previously free-spending owner Tom Hicks -- not only allowed Hatcher to sign with the Red Wings, they also traded Darryl Sydor to Columbus and added Teppo Numminen.

"We had a pretty strong core except for this year," Matvichuk said. "With Derian and Darryl, it would have been a pretty tight-knit group."

The last time these two teams played in the postseason, Colorado coach Tony Granato was a San Jose winger. He acknowledged the "core" issue, "and it also reflects today's game. You have to make changes to keep up with the way
the game is improving. I don't think there's any doubt we think we kept our core. The guys we kept are warriors and competitors, and I'm sure it's the same on the other side."

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."