If the NHL were a classroom, the Stars would be the student who
aces every test during the semester only to have his average
ruined by failing the final exam. Dallas put together the best
regular season in franchise history last year and tied for the
league's second-best record (48-26-8), but it was unexpectedly
bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Oilers.
Unfortunately for the Stars, final grades in the NHL are
determined by postseason performance.

This could be the year Dallas graduates to the top of the class.
As the league's most improved team a year ago, the Stars sneaked
up on the competition. No longer: Dallas is a Stanley Cup
contender. "We need to get over the next hurdle," says
third-year coach Ken Hitchcock. "Teams will be ready for us this

To make sure the Stars are ready for fired-up opposition,
deep-pocketed owner Tom Hicks went on a free-agent spending
spree in the off-season, committing $20 million over the next
three years to sign goaltender Ed Belfour, defenseman Shawn
Chambers and winger Bob Errey. Hicks, however, has not ponied up
enough money to keep his top defender and captain, Derian
Hatcher, happy. The return of the 6'5", 225-pound Hatcher, a
restricted free agent who as of Monday had not signed, is vital
to the team.

The trio of veteran newcomers will certainly upgrade Dallas's
talent level, but perhaps more important, they will tutor the
rest of the Stars in what it takes to scale the playoff
mountain. Chambers and Errey have played on Stanley Cup winners,
and Belfour, one of the league's fiercest competitors, won an
NHL-record 11-straight playoff games with the Blackhawks in 1992.

Assuming Hatcher is back, Belfour will have the luxury of
playing behind one of the NHL's best and deepest defensive
units. In addition to Hatcher and Chambers, the backliners
include Sergei Zubov, Richard Matvichuk, Darryl Sydor and Craig

Offense is where the Stars need to improve. Even with the fleet
center Mike Modano, who had 35 goals and 83 points last season,
the power play was awful in the regular season (14.6% success
rate, 19th in the league) and even worse (3 for 40) in the
playoffs. That must change if Dallas is to avoid another early
postseason exit.

The Stars think that they are built for a Stanley Cup run this
season. "They've put the pieces together for us to have a
championship team," says center Joe Nieuwendyk. "We have a real
solid team."





1. Al MacInnis, Blues
2. Al Iafrate, Sharks
3. Brett Hull, Blues


1. Mike Peca, Sabres
2. Jere Lehtinen, Stars
3. Niklas Sundstrom, Rangers