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Troubled Stars franchise biggest surprise in NHL thus far

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Unless they are sold pretty soon, the Dallas Stars will probably have to borrow money from the NHL to cover expenses. Call it the legacy of the Tom Hicks era, which is lingering even though it effectively ended when the former owner defaulted on loans used to buy the Stars and Texas Rangers and lost control to creditors.

It's odd that things haven't actually worked out too badly for anyone without a financial stake in the matter. One of those teams has done pretty well for itself this season in spite of the circumstances, and now, in one of the NHL's biggest early surprises, the other is doing the same.

GM Joe Nieuwendyk tells CBSSpots.com 'we have to stay within the (financial) paremeters that are given right now.' (Getty Images)  
GM Joe Nieuwendyk tells CBSSpots.com 'we have to stay within the (financial) paremeters that are given right now.' (Getty Images)  
In fact, the Stars head into the weekend with the league's best winning percentage and a 5-1 record after a thorough dissection of the Panthers in Florida, the kind of start teams dream about these days. And it has Dallas sitting on top of the Pacific Division, a resting place about 180 degrees from where most people expected them to be.

Dallas came in with two consecutive playoff misses and, according to coach Marc Crawford, picked by nobody "to be much of a threat at all." The team had lost franchise icon Mike Modano and veteran goalie Marty Turco to free agency and was able to make only minor tweaks to a roster, in large part because of payroll constraints dictated by the NHL as it guides the sale process.

Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk is working with a budget that is nearly at the cap floor, but he dismissed a comparison to the Phoenix Coyotes situation, pointing out that he was able to act independently to sign young players James Neal and Matt Niskanen to contract extensions over the summer. But the league has sign-off power on anything major.

"We do our business with the best interests of the club in mind, but we have to stay within the parameters that are given right now," Nieuwendyk told CBSSports.com. "I don't have to call the league every day, but if it's something that goes over budget, I've got to consult with them."

Something, Nieuwendyk agreed, like trying to re-sign Brad Richards.

The 30-year-old center is the biggest issue facing the team, because he can become an unrestricted free agent when it ends and the ownership issue is unsettled. That puts someone who is once again one of the NHL's best players, and has become the franchise face with the departures of Modano and Turco, firmly in the driver's seat.

Richards had a couple of middling seasons with Tampa Bay, winning the playoff MVP during their 2004 Stanley Cup run, but he has revived his career in Dallas and finished seventh in league scoring last season. Richards is second now, and he has been critical to the Stars' early success, but he's making $7.8 million a season, which on the surface makes him too rich for a team that still has some holes to fill and rising young players to keep.

Nieuwendyk said the Stars would like to keep Richards, but he won't be able to do it alone. And that has made Richards a hot trade rumor despite his no-trade clause.

"It's not really going to be a distraction if I don't want it to be," said Richards said. "Right now, I don't have to do anything. I can stay here, I control that and I'm happy here."

These days, that's no wonder. The Stars have some good young players in Loui Eriksson, Neal and Jamie Benn, and with some veteran talents like Richards, Brenden Morrow and Stephane Robidas mixed in, they are finding ways to win and rack up important points early, although the team stats give reason to question how.

Dallas still has the worst penalty kill in the league despite a flawless night in Florida, and the Stars power play is in the bottom third, while the team is ranked near the bottom in shots allowed as well. But Dallas is getting offense from several places in the lineup, and goalie Kari Lehtonen has put a .927 save percentage and has played every minute.

"He's been great for us," Robidas said. "He's playing so well that he's building confidence from our group, and that's very important for a young group. We believe in each other, but it's important to get the start well and get the ball rolling in the right way. Everything else like the sale isn't what we focus on."

As long as they get paid, of course, which is something the league will ensure even if it has to lend a few million to tide the team over. The Hockey News reported this week that Dallas was being advanced $8 million of its revenue-share portion, while the Dallas Morning News said the team had only inquired about getting the advance.

Nieuwendyk described it to CBSSports.com as an "ongoing process for us," saying what mattered most was the foundation of the organization in Dallas.

"It's not like we're an expansion team, there's a history and some solid things in place," he said. "We have a lot of good young players, a great building and fan base and that seems to get lost in the shuffle some times.

"But really, all that gets isolated from the players. If everybody believes in one another, you can get results in spite of all that."

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