Without making many major changes from the team that had only 66 points last season, the Dallas Stars have changed from doormats to division leaders.
“We had a long summer to think about what we did and how embarrassing it was,” center Mike Modano said. “We didn’t want to let it happen again. We really wanted to get a fresh start.’
From a 6-0 start through their 2-1 victory over the Kings on Monday at the Forum, the Stars have been one of the NHL’s most impressive teams. They have a seven-point lead over Detroit atop the Central Division and trail the Colorado Avalanche by only six points for the Western Conference lead.
Their success is no mystery: They play a basic, sound defensive game, are patient when they don’t have the puck and opportunistic when they do. They’re blessed with a muscular but mobile defense corps that moves the puck well and they’re deep up the middle with Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk and role players Neal Broten and Bob Bassen.
Signing free-agent wingers Pat Verbeek and Dave Reid, and acquiring defenseman Sergei Zubov in a trade for Kevin Hatcher were hardly cataclysmic moves, yet each added to the Stars’ depth and allows them to play four capable lines and six solid defensemen.
The real key to their transformation may be that they have had more time with Ken Hitchcock, who took over as coach last January when General Manager Bob Gainey relinquished the dual role.
“If you think about the whole roster, three moves really aren’t as big an impact as maybe just the attitudes and the approaches of the players that were here all along,” said goalie Andy Moog, who ranks sixth among goalies with 349 victories.
“We’re virtually the same club we were last year, we just got a little bit different focus and a little bit clearer picture of what the coaching staff wants us to do in executing on the ice.
“And obviously we’re motivated to win. That’s been evident all year.”
Hitchcock deflected the praise to his players.
“They feel like they let each other down if they don’t play hard,” he said. “It’s almost a fear factor, that they don’t want to let that happen.”
The Stars have had little to fear so far.
“This is definitely where we want to be at this point of the season,” Modano said. “One of our goals was to be in the top five in the league and make teams chase us. . . . We just put it all out on the ice every night. We push each other and our system to the limit and we’re just finding ways to win.”
OILERS HIT A NEW GUSHER
The Edmonton Oilers are about to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, and they won’t merely squeak in. They’re tied for fourth in the West, the reward of a long rebuilding process.
General Manager Glen Sather said he would rather lead the conference, “but I’ll settle for where we are for the time being. . . . We’ve still got lots of kids who are not performing as well as we thought.
“It’s a slow process. It takes time. There’s no such thing as an instant cure, no such thing as a Bromo-Seltzer. It takes four or five years to rebuild a team, and I’m not even talking about being in position to challenge to win, I’m just talking about being competitive. The more teams you take in through expansion, the longer it will take.”
THE PETR PRINCIPLE
Some people never learn.
The Calgary Flames have considered signing Petr Klima, whose laziness led Tampa Bay, the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins to dump him in the last year. For some reason, the Flames think Klima could be a positive influence on his Czech compatriot, Robert Reichel. Plan B would be to forget Klima and trade Reichel, possibly to the New York Islanders for Travis Green. We vote for B.
More wackiness in Calgary: Coach Pierre Page told his players to think of the seven-game span from Jan. 28 through Feb. 9 as an imaginary playoff series and raise their intensity to playoff levels.
The Flames won that imaginary series, 4-3, which proves only that they can win pretend playoff games. They haven’t won a real series since they won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
FEELING A DRAFT
The consensus after last week’s Top Prospects game at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens was that left wing Daniel Cleary enhanced his standing and top-ranked Joe Thornton did nothing to hurt his position.
Cleary, who plays for Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League, was ranked eighth in the midseason report issued by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. He had two goals in the prospects game, which matched the top junior players in the major Canadian junior leagues. Third-ranked Sergei Samsonov, who plays for Detroit of the International Hockey League, didn’t participate. Thornton, a 6-foot-4, 198-pound center for Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL, had two assists.
Bill Watters, assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, listed the most impressive performers as Thornton, second-ranked center Patrick Marleau of Seattle and center Daniel Tkaczuk of Barrie of the OHL.
“If L.A. gets one of the top three picks, I don’t see how they can miss on one of those forwards,” Watters said, aware that the Kings have two-first round picks. “Tkaczuk really has a lot of flair, Marleau is a very good skater and Thornton is a big, strong kid.”
Watters also liked Roberto Luongo of Val d’Or of the Quebec League, the top-ranked goalie. “Rick Wamsley [Toronto’s goalie coach] said he could play in the NHL right now,” Watters said.
WHEELING AND DEALING
Detroit scouted Ottawa defenseman Steve Duchesne as a potential power-play point man. They had one, Paul Coffey, but they’ll never acknowledge they miss him or Dino Ciccarelli. The Oilers recently asked the Red Wings what they would give up for defenseman Luke Richardson, a hard-hitter who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. However, the resurgent Oilers may ante up the money to keep him.
Scouts from Philadelphia and the New York Rangers were watching the Kings, Ducks and Maple Leafs last week, anticipating that those teams might make some moves if they lose more ground in the so-called playoff race.
The New Jersey Devils, who were interested in Toronto’s Doug Gilmour, may switch gears now that they’ve acquired Peter Zezel and instead pursue play-making center Adam Oates of Boston. Oates has said he wants a new contract if he’s traded, which might be a stumbling block.
Florida reportedly is after Gilmour, as are the Philadelphia Flyers. They’re thin up the middle after losing Dale Hawerchuk to a hip injury last week and Eric Lindros to a sore back last weekend.
Buffalo center Pat LaFontaine is progressing well in his recovery from post-concussion syndrome but he isn’t ready to play, the Sabres said Monday. A return this season becomes increasingly doubtful. . . . The St. Louis Blues’ settlement with Mike Keenan, former general manager and coach, was about $6 million, sources say, and he was not prohibited from coaching another NHL team. There have been whispers he will end up in Boston.
Keenan is gone, but fans haven’t returned to St. Louis’ Kiel Center. To lure them back, the Blues will cut the price of some tickets by $10 starting March 9 and promised season-ticket holders no price hikes for the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Blues are down 4,000 fans a game from last season. . . . The Washington Capitals, desperate for offense, used defenseman Phil Housley at left wing on a line with Michal Pivonka and Peter Bondra. Housley played center early in his career in Buffalo.
Penguin goalie Patrick Lalime isn’t as formidable the second time around. His goals-against average has risen to 2.64. . . . Maple Leaf Coach Mike Murphy benched veteran defenseman Larry Murphy on Saturday. Too bad he can’t bench the rest of his defensemen.
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Biggest Turnarounds After 59 games, the Dallas Stars had 72 points, up 27 from the same stage last season. They are on pace to finish with 100 points, up 34 from last season. Here are the biggest one-season turnarounds: *--*
Season Team Points Change* 1993-94 San Jose 82 +58 1992-93 Quebec 104 +52 1981-82 Winnipeg 80 +48 1967-68 Boston 84 +40 1986-87 Detroit 78 +38 1972-73 Buffalo 88 +37 1974-75 Buffalo 113 +37 1981-82 Edmonton 111 +37 1993-94 N.Y. Rangers 112 +33 1943-44 Montreal 83 +33
* from previous season