Stars expect Patrick Sharp to be important piece of Cup puzzle

Oduya on joining Stars: 'It was easy pick' (3:49)

Stars defenseman Johhny Oduya talks to ESPN's Bruce LeVine on joining the Dallas Stars and discusses his expectations for the season. (3:49)

DALLAS -- The Dallas Stars have finished their last practice before the start of the 2015-16 season and the players are already moving through post-practice routines -- meeting with reporters, showering, playing pingpong at the end of the hallway.

Well, that's the routine for most players.

Patrick Sharp, one of the newest and arguably most important Stars, has returned to the ice and is firing pucks at a net on the nearly empty sheet of ice at the team's practice facility.

Former NHLer Craig Ludwig, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and longtime broadcast analyst in Dallas, wondered if some of the younger players on this talented Stars team would take note of the extra work being put in by the 33-year-old.

"He just does all the little things," Ludwig said. "That's why [general manager] Jim [Nill] brought him here."

Such an interesting experiment unfolding in the state of Texas.

The Stars, once a league power before the introduction of a salary cap and the search for a new owner caused some lean years, are looking to reinvent themselves as a Stanley Cup contender.

Ownership is solid under Tom Gaglardi.

Nill, now in his third season at the helm after apprenticing in Detroit for almost two decades, has one of the league's most explosive teams, with defending scoring champ Jamie Benn (the franchise's first Art Ross Trophy winner), Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza.

But after sneaking into the 2013-14 postseason, the Stars could not meet high expectations last season and were plagued by unreliable goaltending and suspect team defense.

Enter Sharp and Chicago Blackhawks teammate Johnny Oduya. The two have five Stanley Cup rings between them. (Well, technically three because both Oduya and Sharp have yet to receive their rings from last June's championship, the third in six years for the dynastic Blackhawks, but expect to later this month in a private ceremony with Chicago officials.)

The additions bring into focus the longstanding question of whether experience is crucial to a team's success.

Nill was in Detroit when things pretty much stunk all the time and was still there when the Red Wings got good every season, slowly turning over the roster but always ensuring there was a bridge connecting one generation to the next -- Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios passing the torch to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, who are passing on knowledge and experience to Tomas Tatar, Danny DeKeyser and Justin Abdelkader.

In Dallas, Nill is hoping Sharp and Oduya can help build a similar bridge.

"Well, it's a big part of why we obtained those guys," Nill said. "That's something that just doesn't grow on trees. You have to live it. It has to be nurtured. It has to be passed on as you mentioned. And that's something that was maybe missing here a little bit. But we're starting to get it now.

"It's Jamie Benn now, the young captain, going to the Olympics and nobody really knew who he was and all of a sudden taking charge and being the guy. So he's starting to learn it. And all of a sudden you bring in a Patrick Sharp, a Jason Spezza, a Johnny Oduya, these guys that have been there and done it. It's important. It's so important. The coaching staff, the management team, we can tell them all we want, [but] in the end, it's the dressing room that's going to drive the boat."

Veteran Vernon Fiddler, a 35-year-old who has never played more than six NHL playoff games in a season, believes the impact of Sharp and Oduya can be felt among Stars young and old.

"Even for an older guy like myself, I'd give one of my fingers to win a championship and a Stanley Cup," Fiddler said.

And to watch Sharp and Oduya go about their business, listen to their thoughts on preparation and listen to how things were done in an environment where winning it all has become an annually attainable goal has tremendous value in a place such as Dallas.

"I think our young guys can learn from that; where it just doesn't happen that you get to the Stanley Cup finals almost every second year, that there's things that you have to do off the ice and on the ice to find those ways to get to the finals and make deep runs in the playoffs," Fiddler said.

"We thought we had a team last year that could do some damage, and it doesn't matter what you have on paper, you have to put the work in and play your system and follow through with that and I think that's been a big wake-up call for us here," Fiddler said.

The Stars don't need Sharp to score 80 points. They have players who can do that.

They need him to make plays when it matters most. They need him to speak up when players are looking to cut corners, because the easy path is not the path to a Cup.

And in Sharp, the Stars have a player who relishes the chance to lead this group to success.

"It's exciting," Sharp said in a nearly empty Stars dressing room.

"I feel that pressure. I feel those expectations. Expectations are something that are nothing new for myself, for Johnny Oduya. We come from an organization that has expectations to win the Stanley Cup every year."

It's a fine line to tread, being ready to share experience, being a voice that resonates in a room; it's another to come off like a jerk.

Sharp chuckled at the notion of managing that tightrope.

"I know I have some experience," he said. "And I have played in some big situations, but at the same time I'm walking into a locker room to a team that I know some of the guys, but it's their locker room. I'm not going to come in here and change too much, but you look around the room, you see guys with great experience, guys that have been around the league a long time, the pieces are there. Whatever I can do to come in and improve the team, I'm going to try and do."

Not that these moves don't give a player and his family pause.

A decade ago, Sharp's college girlfriend moved to Philadelphia to go to nursing school and be with him, then a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. That December Sharp was traded to Chicago.

The girlfriend, who would become his wife and mother to his two young daughters, is now making a new life for the family in Texas.

"The family has transitioned a lot better than I thought it would," Sharp admitted. "My wife was a little upset leaving Chicago. She's been there for 10 years. People sometimes don't think about that. They just think about the hockey player and what's going on on the ice, but there's a lot more that goes on behind the scenes. My wife, the two girls, they've adjusted well. They're enjoying the weather. They're enjoying the city of Dallas. They've got no complaints, that's for sure."

On a personal level, there is also the not so small matter of moving on from his own relationships in the Blackhawks' dressing room.

"It's tough, whether you're playing hockey, professional sports, or working in an office," Sharp said.

"When you pack up and leave after 10 years, 10 fun years, 10 memorable years, there's going to be some emotion that comes with it, but my wife and I are looking at it like it's a new chapter, a new opportunity. At the end of the day, I'm a hockey player and Dallas presents an opportunity where I can hopefully come down here and be an impact player on a good team."

The motivation to win somewhere else is a strong one. In some ways as good as Sharp has been -- since 2009, he is sixth in the league with 80 postseason points in 117 games -- he has played in the large shadow cast by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.

Head coach Lindy Ruff has been impressed not just with the effort but the attitude of the veteran winger.

"I think what I like is how eager he is to get going and get playing," Ruff said. "He's not spending much time in the past. He's looking forward to this opportunity, a new opportunity. He would no more like to win a fourth Stanley Cup and be a big part of it and I think that's the part I like. He's not living on what went on in Chicago. He's moved on and says, 'I know I've got to do some things better to help these guys and to help myself.' I think that's all you can ask."

Ludwig saw first-hand what these kinds of moves can mean to a team looking to take the final step.

Ludwig moved with the franchise from Minnesota to Dallas in the summer of 1993. Over the course of the next few seasons, GM Bob Gainey brought in Brian Skrudland, Guy Carbonneau and Mike Keane, players who had won championships in Montreal.

Those players helped homegrown stars such as Mike Modano share the burden of leadership as the team became a Cup contender and finally a Cup champion in 1999.

Ludwig joked that when head coach Ken Hitchcock asked for a meeting of the team's leadership group, they needed to hold it in the dressing room because there wasn't room for all the players in Hitchcock's office.

Sharp and Oduya have the potential to be catalysts to something similar, Ludwig predicted.

These moves aren't without their risks.

Sharp has another year after this on his contract that carries an annual cap hit of $5.9 million. He saw his role diminish slightly last spring as he played mostly third-line minutes for the Blackhawks and, bothered by injury, his 16 goals during the regular season were down from 34 in 2013-14.

Still, former Stars assistant GM and longtime NHL executive Frank Provenzano, who has contributed to ESPN's hockey coverage in the past several years, believes the risk is an acceptable one for the Stars.

First, there's not a long-term commitment to Sharp or Oduya, both of whom have another year left on their current deals. And they are being asked to be complementary players who bring a wealth of big-game experience.

"If you're going to build your team around these guys, that's a different story," Provenzano said.

And while it's difficult to quantify -- and Provenzano warned that Cup experience can be overvalued -- there is value in adding that element to a locker room.

"Until you've won, you haven't won," Provenzano said. "There aren't many players relative to the whole player pool who have, players who are going to be able to play in a meaningful way on your team."

We'll see just whether that street cred can be a catalyst to something more meaningful, nay, memorable, in Texas.