Wednesday October 29th, 2008

When all is said and done, it's hard to imagine the traditionally miserly Dallas Stars finishing with the league's most bloated goals-against mark. But watching this heavily-hyped team scramble without purpose through the season's opening weeks, it's just as hard to picture the Stars tightening up any time soon.

Outside of a pair of promising efforts on the road last week against the Rangers and Islanders, these Stars have scarcely resembled the team that steamrolled to the Western Conference Finals last spring. That squad was defined by a consistent willingness to compete, and a devotion to the concept of defensive responsibility.

The only consistent element to this year's team is the ability to shoot itself in the skate boot with a poorly executed clear, weak coverage out front or a soft goal.

Marty Turco (yes, he was my preseason Vezina pick -- thanks for reminding me) has been brutal, his focus clearly broken and his mechanics in shambles. Watching the Capitals exploit his five-hole for three goals last Saturday, and then spend the rest of the night trying to make it four, it's obvious that the word is out on how easy it is to take advantage of him down low.

At least that puny .840 save percentage finally convinced Turco to spend some quality time with goalie coach Andy Moog after choosing to heed his own counsel over the summer. Moog's tweaks have guided Turco out of similar sour patches in the past -- he goes through one or two every year -- but the pressure to get the veteran back on track quickly is acute. Previously, Turco could be benched for a few games while he addressed his issues because he was replaced by a capable back up in Johan Hedberg or Mike Smith. That's not an option now with Tobias Stephan as the fallback.

"We've thought about [benching Turco] for about two weeks now," coach Dave Tippett said after the 6-5 loss to Washington. "But the other guy is unproven. When he has been in there, he hasn't exactly showed he's a go-to guy."

Is that a lightly veiled slap at the cap management skills of Les Jackson and Brett Hull that forced the team to go with the rookie? Maybe, but it's also a clear indication that Turco will have to work out the kinks with points on the line. When Stephan does see a start, you'll know Tippett is out of options.

But as bad as Turco has been, his may be the easiest problem to address. The larger issue is a constantly shifting defense corps that has yet to produce one dependable pairing and routinely offers up higher quality scoring chances than Dallas goalies have faced in years.

Rookies Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric performed with veteran aplomb last season, even as injuries forced them into significant roles. This time around, all three are acting their age, looking frazzled by the pace and incapable of asserting themselves physically.

Philippe Boucher, a reliable 22-minute man in the past, has yet to find his rhythm after playing just 41 games last season and missing the entire preseason. With his workload increased, it's more obvious than ever that Trevor Daley's feet move faster than his brain. And Sergei Zubov, a legitimate Norris candidate last season until he went down with a hernia and foot injury, has yet to suit up after summer hip surgery. He has begun skating and is scheduled to return to the lineup as soon as Saturday, but it could be weeks before he shakes off the rust.

The Stars haven't played since losing Saturday, and practices have focused on defensive accountability. The fruits of their labors will be tested by the Minnesota Wild on Wed. night, a team that's conveniently rolled over in each of its last eight visits to the American Airlines Center (0-6-2). Of course, the more pertinent record is 6-0-1 -- the Wild's mark this season. They'll be a stout test for a team that desperately needs to find its identity, and a goalie who needs to get back to basics.

With potential trading partners just saying no, it's starting to seem more likely that impending free agent Marian Gaborik will remain with the Wild, at least until the new year. Even then he'll be a tough sell, unless GM Doug Risebrough is willing to lower his demands.

"There's nowhere near the market for him that you think," one league exec said. "He's a highly skilled guy, but the risk is so high. Even if you were able to sign him [to an extension] as part of the deal, you have to consider his [injury] history. I'm not sure it's worth the risk to a contender or a young team that's rebuilding."

Gaborik has further sabotaged the bargaining position of his boss by missing five straight games with an unspecified lower body injury. It's been reported that he turned down an offer from the Wild worth $8 million a year. The way things are going, he won't get an offer anywhere near that if he explores the market this summer.

Final thought on the Wild: their captain-of-the-month gimmick may not be broken, but it's time to fix it. If the uncertainty of the Gaborik situation has proven anything, it's that the franchise needs to move in a new direction. The surest step to demonstrate that a corner has been turned is to award the C permanently to the team's true centerpiece: Mikko Koivu. At 25, the October captain has become someone whom his teammates can rally around and look up to, a consistent two-way player who typifies the Jacques Lemaire model of responsible creativity. Plus, he's signed for two more years, which creates a sense of stability in the role. Given the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a reason not to give Koivu the honor.

The message from USA Hockey was cold and clear: Home ice is nice, but we'd prefer the cash, thank you very much.

The decision to name Buffalo as its choice to host the 2011 World Junior championships ensures an attendance bonanza thanks to the junior hockey-mad population of southwestern Ontario being within a 90-minute drive. It also all but guarantees that the "home team" will play in front of a crowd that will be largely hostile.

Buffalo was one of three American cities in the running to host the tournament. The other finalists were Minneapolis and Grand Forks, N.D., the site of the 2005 event memorable for arguably the best junior team ever assembled (the Sidney Crosby-led Canadians) and crowds that were heavily pro-Canadian and, in some cases, anti-American.

The failure of the 1996 event in Boston obviously weighed heavily in the decision to award the 2011 tournament to a border town. Still, a market like Minneapolis with a proven appetite for sub-NHL hockey could have been just as successful by drawing Canadian fans to complement, rather than make up for, American attendance.

If Buffalo-area fans would like to prove themselves more hospitable than Grand Forks and add a little blue to what's sure to be a predominantly red and white crowd, better dig out your wallet quickly. Deposits already are being taken for tickets atwww.buffaloworldjuniors.com.

Canada, winner of the last four tournaments, is official host of the event in 2009 (Ottawa), 2010 (Saskatoon and Regina) and 2012 (Edmonton and Calgary).

One thing you have to love about Russia's Kontinental Hockey League -- it embraces its roots. The circuit's four divisions honor some of the greatest names in the country's hockey history: Valeri Khalamov, Vsevolod Bobrov, Anatoly Tarasov and Arkady Chernyshev. Meanwhile, the NHL chose to consign legendary names like Adams, Norris, Smythe and Patrick to the history books when it dumbed down its own divisional monickers for the sake of novice fans back in 1993. Nothing wrong with admitting the mistake, fellas...and imagine the press you could generate in picking names for the two additional divisions. Personally, I like Howe and Orr.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.