It was another season of “close, but no cigar” for the Dallas Stars.
Despite winning 42 games for the second straight year, the Stars finished 2011-12 losing nine of their final 12 games and each of their last five.
It certainly wasn't the finish expected for a club that was riding a mid-March hot streak that seemed to be pushing them toward a playoff berth.
Inconsistency proved their undoing this season. After bolting from the gate with an 11-3 start, the Stars stumbled along from mid-November to mid-February, going 18-23-4.
But a 10-0-1 streak from Feb. 21-March 13 had them on the verge of clinching their first post-season spot in four years, until their aforementioned slump down the stretch snuffed out all hope.
The Stars also failed to show improvement in several critical areas. Though they gave up eight fewer goals compared to last season and improved their penalty kill from 23rd to 13th, their offensive production declined from 226 goals last season to 204, while their power play fell from 14th to 30th.
Credit goaltender Kari Lehtonen (59 GP, 32-22-4, 2.33 GAA, .922 SP, four shutouts) for the improvement in the goals-against, as their defense gave up the ninth-most shots in the league.
It's obvious GM Joe Nieuwendyk has work to do this summer to improve a franchise that has spun its wheels due to ownership issues in recent years, which has forced the team to operate on a shoestring budget.
Fortunately for Nieuwendyk he won't be hampered with low payroll this summer. If he needs more money to bolster the roster, new owner Tom Galiardi has indicated he's willing to spend.
Nieuwendyk's first order of business will be to re-sign rising star left winger Jamie Benn, who's a restricted free agent this summer and due a big raise coming off his entry level contract.
One key area to be addressed is the lack of offensive production beyond Benn, left winger Loui Eriksson, center Mike Ribeiro and right winger Michael Ryder.
That's prompted speculation Nieuwendyk will be a serious bidder for New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise should he become an unrestricted free agent. If Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter also decides to test the UFA market, Nieuwendyk may make a pitch for him, too.
Reports out of Dallas say veterans such as Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott and Stephane Robidas will face “hard evaluations” of their leadership to determine if they still have a future with the Stars.
Each of the four is under contract for next season and only Morrow and Robidas have full no-trade clauses. Ott's expired last year, while Ribeiro can list 10 teams he won't accept a trade to. Of the four, team captain Morrow faces the most uncertainty over his future in Dallas. Neck and back injuries hindered his performance and limited him to 57 games.
The Stars currently have around $44 million invested in 16 players for 2012-13. Benn's new salary (which could be as high as $6 million per season) will eat up a big chunk of cap space, as would a contract for Parise or Suter if Nieuwendyk can sign one of them.
There is uncertainty over what next year's salary cap ceiling will be under a new CBA and Nieuwendyk could be forced to move Morrow ($4.1 million) to free up some additional cap space to bring in a fresh face. Ott, mentioned in trade rumors in the weeks leading up to February's deadline, could also be a trade candidate.
Nieuwendyk has done well operating on a low budget and has iced a reasonably competitive team with a solid core of talent to build on. This summer, however, will be the first time he'll have more dollars to add the kind of experienced depth to finally get the Stars into a playoff spot.
After four years of missed playoffs, declining attendance and ownership uncertainty, the Stars need to become a contender to win back their fans. This will be the most important off-season of Nieuwendyk's tenure as Stars GM.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.