Friday March 26th, 2010

"A part of me wants to keep coming back to play until they tell me they don't want me to come back." -- Mike Modano, May, 2009

So, how would you like to take a bite off the plate of Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk? His team's dispirited 3-0 loss in San Jose on Thursday night didn't officially flip the switch on this disappointing season, but it brought an inevitable moment of reckoning one step closer.

A second spring spent on the playoff sidelines ensures that there are big changes coming in Big D. And Nieuwendyk, handcuffed by an ownership in flux and bearing the weight of relationships with former teammates, has some tough decisions ahead.

Speculation is swirling about those impending changes, but it's likely that the first to be told he's free to go will be Marty Turco. Despite an up-and-down season, the veteran stopper has some game left in him. Statistics, and the naked eye, tell you he's still capable of being a mid-level No. 1 playing behind a more capable defense than he's had the past couple years, but he's well past his best-by date with the Stars. The 34-year-old probably should have been moved last summer, when the team decided not to extend his contract, or at least at the trade deadline, right after Nieuwendyk acquired his *fingers crossed* replacement, Kari Lehtonen. That Turco stayed put might not be considered a gross mishandling of assets by the rookie GM, but it was a mistake nonetheless.

Then there's Jere Lehtinen. The 36-year-old has a good engine, but there's no tread left on his tires. A three-time Selke winner, Lehtinen still puts his heart into every shift, but with just three goals in 50 games, it's apparent that he's lost the ability to make a consistent impact. It's possible that he'll be brought back at a fraction of his current $2.5 million hit to fill a leadership role, but it makes more sense to bring in a young, hungry and cheap buck to fill Lehtinen's bottom-six slot.

Both veterans have been part of the team's core for a decade or more, but they won't be the toughest call Nieuwendyk has to make.

That will be the future of Modano.

Modano, after all, isn't just a player. He's an icon. A larger-than-life figure who has meant everything to the Stars the same way that Joe Sakic did to the Avs, or Steve Yzerman to the Red Wings. He may be remembered as the greatest American-born player of all-time (though Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios could fashion a decent argument) and he's certainly the single most compelling reason that the sport took root in Dallas.

Because he's plied his craft in Texas, Modano hasn't been as celebrated as Yzerman or Sakic, but the fact that he's remained with the franchise his entire career is a remarkable achievement. He's had chances to leave in the past, almost signing with Boston as a free agent a few years back and turning down a chance to go to the Capitals at the trade deadline earlier this month, but he chose to stay. He recognizes the rarity of his opportunity.

Loyalty like that is tough to ignore.

But with his 40th birthday coming up on June 7, the end is coming sooner than later for Modano. Sidelined now after an emergency appendectomy ("a not-so-subtle reminder of how Father Time catches up to all of us," he told WFAA TV), Modano hopes to come back some time during the team's current four-game road trip. That would allow him to play four more games in Dallas and finish the season, fittingly, where it all began for him: in Minnesota.

After that? Well, Nieuwendyk has said that he'll let Modano have some time to consider his future, and then he'll discuss it with him. The words seem open, but the tone suggested a clear interpretation: the team would benefit from moving on and the GM is hoping that Modano will make it easy on him.

The truth is, the on-ice product would be fine without Modano. Brad Richards is established as his successor on the top line. Jamie Benn has been a revelation since switching to center to help cover a number of injuries. Tom Wandell displayed a Lehtinen-like two-way game before his season was ended by a knee injury in January.

But remember, this isn't just a hockey decision. Going by the expanses of empty seats most nights at the AAC, it's clear that Dallas has a fan base that's with the team win or tie. If selling tickets with a figuratively graying Modano in the lineup is tough, it's hard to imagine what it will be like without him.

Not everyone is ready to send Modano out to pasture, including ex-teammate, and former boss, Brett Hull. The Hall of Famer, whose own career ended in difficult fashion not that long ago, says he hasn't had any discussions about the R word with Modano. "None," he said, "because I think he can still play."

Hull might be right. The standard line is that the legs are the first thing to go. Modano may have lost a step over the years, but he was so fast to begin with that keeping up isn't the issue. The desire, however, is another matter. He's always been the sort of player whose effort could be questioned on occasion. This season, there have been more shifts where he's appeared to be something less than motivated. The dynamic moments when the overdrive kicks in and the jersey flaps in his wake still arise, but so infrequently now that they stand out instead of being the standard.

Modano, who isn't giving any clues as to his intentions, spoke last summer about how the frustration of missing the playoffs motivated him to return this season. Now, after another DNQ campaign, and with little hope of a quick turnaround next season, you have to wonder if the will is still there to go through it all again.

The one safe bet is that the decision won't be rushed. Modano doesn't seem like the sort of player who'd want a farewell tour anyway, so don't expect an announcement before the last home game against the Ducks on April 8, or before the finale at the Xcel Energy Center on the 10th.

But you might want to catch those games, live or on TV, if you get the chance. Because a tough decision is coming. Whether it's Modano or Nieuwendyk who makes the call, we may be seeing the final days of a legend.

Shopping for new gear with my son the other day, I was reminded that none of the involved parties in the NHL should feel as though they've adequately addressed the head shots issue without also tackling the state of modern equipment.

Watching my kid slap on that over-priced body armor, I realized that all I needed to do was jam a couple spikes in the shoulder pads, give him a mohawk and he'd ready for Thunderdome. By comparison, my stuff looks like it came out of Craig Ludwig's equipment bag. The elbow pads are a late-80s vintage, the cap deeply buried under a soft foam cover instead of at the jaw-cracking surface. The shoulder pads are almost as old and look comically inadequate next to the new stuff, but they always did the job. Good Ol' Days Syndrome is largely counterproductive, but in this case a return to equipment that is, at its core, defensive makes good sense...

New line for Stefan

Worked out pretty well for Brian Lawton, so maybe it shouldn't be a surprise to see another former first overall pick, Patrik Stefan, pop up as a player agent. Stefan represents several young Czech hopefuls, including Tomas Vincour, a 6-2, 203-pound center signed by the Stars this week. Stefan, just 29, has settled in California where, it's hoped, few folks remember this infamous play...

Surprise fantasy stud

A stat that I just can't wrap my head around: Alexandre Burrows (33) has more goals than Jarome Iginla (32), Rick Nash (30), Evgeni Malkin (24) and Vincent Lecavalier (22). Where did Burrows get drafted in your hockey pool?...

Stock plunge

A year ago, 17-year-old Russian Kirill Kabanov was being hyped in some corners as the next Alexander Ovechkin. After an incident last weekend, the 6-3, 185-pound winger looks more like the next Nikolai Zherdev.

The QMJHL's top-rated prospect for the upcoming draft, Kabanov was benched for the second and third periods of Moncton's 6-3 series-opening win over Cape Breton after a pair of mental errors led to penalties. The next night, he was a healthy scratch. Two days later, he was released by the team, ostensibly to play for Russia at the World Under-18 Tournament.

Sorry, but that story doesn't float. Keep in mind that Moncton is in contention for a Memorial Cup berth, so releasing one of their most offensively gifted forwards to play for his country at this point makes about as much sense as the Capitals sending Alex Semin home in the middle of the first round. Unless, of course, there's more to the story.

And there is.

A league source said Kabanov's attitude created rifts in the Wildcats' dressing room and his presence had become "a detriment to the team." His draft stock had already been damaged by injuries that cut deeply into his season. With memories of Zherdev and Nikita Filatov still fresh in mind, and the lure of the KHL lurking, these latest issues could drop Kabanov into the lower reaches of the first round. If they are interpreted as just a matter of maturity, the supremely skilled forward could turn out to be a tremendous bargain for some team. If the issues are deeper, he could turn into a costly bust. Expect him to the be most carefully interviewed player at the draft combine in June.

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