Dallas Stars outlook: Defense

Right now it appears the Dallas Stars will head into next season with the same group of defensemen as last season. So, where will the improvement come for a team that ranked 23rd in goals against last season?

“First and foremost, I think it’s in the belief in our structure,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford. “And I do think an improvement in the goaltending position is definitely necessary.”

Crawford pointed out that the Stars saw what an improvement in goaltending could do for the defense late last season. The Stars went 8-5-1 over their final 14 games and allowed just 2.5 goals game per game as Kari Lehtonen and Marty Turco combined for a .924 save percentage.

Lehtonen saw the bulk of play during that late season stretch and he’ll carry the load this season now that Turco has departed free agency. The Stars are counting on Lehtonen, who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline and then signed to a three-year, $10.65 million extension, to boost the netminding position this season.

“That will help our defensive play because there is so much more confidence in your defensive play when your backstop back there is playing such an important role,” said Crawford.

The Stars are counting on improvement in their young defensemen as well. At the top of the list is Matt Niskanen, who is coming off a subpar season. Niskanen is getting some extra attention from strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen this summer and assistant coach Charlie Huddy is keeping in touch with him as well. The goal is to help the 23-year-old become more “assertive and more aggressive” in his game.

“We know he’s got tremendous skill and we’ve seen his abilities,” said Crawford. “He’s shown the Stars and our fans how good he can be, but you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep making improvements and he’s given himself the opportunity to have a real bounce back campaign for us.”

The Stars also expect Nicklas Grossman to continue to improve. The 25-year-old was fourth among Dallas defensemen in ice time at 19:11 per game.

“He played in a top four situation consistently last year,” said Crawford. “He’s gone through the bumps and learning curve of playing a position that maybe he wasn’t quite ready for the last couple years, but he’s definitely grown into it.”

Mark Fistric, 24, had a breakthrough season and the hope is he’ll take another step forward. Fistric led the team with a plus-27 rating and was a plus or even in 61 of the 67 games he played.

“We’re excited about the year he had,” said Crawford. “We’re excited that he’s showing that personality right now that he’s not satisfied, he wants more and he wants to take the next step. I love the aggressiveness with which he played at the end of the season.”

The thought going into last season was that Trevor Daley would thrive in the up tempo system Crawford and GM Joe Nieuwendyk were installing with the Stars. There wasn’t much change in Daley’s offensive production from past seasons, but Crawford and Nieuwendyk both said they saw glimpses of what the Stars were hoping to see from the 26-year-old.

“I thought Daley gave us two terrific months at the end of the season,” Nieuwendyk said in his post-season news conference.

“When he jumped into the play last year and he played with his great speed and skating ability, he showed that he was going to be a terrific asset for us,” Crawford said. “We want to continue to encourage Trevor to take another step and keep taking another step in his involvement in the club. I think he is one guy who will take a more prominent role in the leadership of the team.”

The Stars have two veterans returning on defense in Stephane Robidas and Karlis Skrastins.

“They are two professional guys who play the game passionately,” said Crawford. “I’ve got no worries about them. “

Robidas is coming off another superb season. He set career highs in goals (10), assists (31), points (41) and ranked fourth among NHL defensemen with 7 power play goals. He ranked fourth in the league in hits (269) and seventh in blocked shots (177).

“We probably ask Stephane Robidas to do too much. We really do,” Nieuwendyk said at the end of last season. “He’s a quality guy and a quality person. He gives you everything he’s got each and every night.”

Skrastins, a reliable defensive defenseman, had a solid 2009-10 season for the Stars. He was third among Dallas defensemen and tied for 15th in the league with 156 blocked shots.

Jeff Woywitka, who played 36 games last season, appears to be the 7th on the depth chart heading into training camp and Crawford thinks there could be some competition when camp opens in Prince Edward Island next month.

“I think as you get towards the end of the lineup there are always people that are going to be pushing, and that’s good,” he said.

Among those who will get a look is Severin Blindenbacher, the Swiss defenseman who played in the Swedish Elite League last season. The Stars signed him to a one-year, two-way contract on the first day of free agency.

“He’s a world class player. He’s played in two Olympics, played on a great Swiss national team,” said Crawford. “He’s got a chance.”

Crawford said Maxime Fortunus, who played eight games with Dallas last season, is another player who could push for a spot. Philip Larsen, who got into two games at the end of the season, is the Stars’ top defensive prospect. He’s likely to start in the AHL, but he’s not far away from being NHL ready. And there’s veteran and Stanley Cup winner Brad Lukowich, who signed a two-way contract with the Stars.

“We go eleven guys deep,” Crawford said. “It will make for interesting competition.”

Dallas Stars Defensemen

Defensemen under contract for 2010-11