Stars having one of NHL’s best off-seasons


The acquisition of Johnny Oduya is a huge part of the Stars' off-season success. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

The Stanley Cup isn’t won in the off-season. If it was, start engraving the trophy for the Dallas Stars.

With the signing of defenceman Johnny Oduya on Wednesday, the Stars put the finishing touches on an off-season that didn’t transform the roster but filled the kind of holes that should put them back in the playoff picture.

"We’re in the beginning of, I think, where we should be starting to make the jump," general manager Jim Nill said.

Dallas acquired and signed Antti Niemi to a deal that strengthens its goaltending, even if it’s at a hefty price of US$4.5 million over three years. The Stars then traded defenceman Trevor Daley and bottom-six forward Ryan Garbutt to the Chicago Blackhawks for scoring winger Patrick Sharp and defensive prospect Stephen Johns.

Signing Oduya, who won the Cup with the Blackhawks last month, to a $7.5-million, two-year deal was "the last piece of the puzzle," according to Nill. What it did was effectively replace Daley and make the Sharp trade look even sharper.

Oduya is 34 now, perhaps a step slower than he was as a teenager when Nill scouted him. But he’s an immediate upgrade on the Dallas blue line.

"Once we knew we were going to make that trade, losing Trevor Daley, I knew (adding a defenceman) was something we wanted to look at," Nill said on a conference call Wednesday. "Any time you can add a player of Johnny’s stature, somebody that’s has won, a guy that does everything right, you can’t go wrong with it."

In Niemi, Sharp and Oduya, the Stars added three players with Blackhawks Cup rings. That pedigree was something Nill considers important, but he made each move for a different reason.

Sending a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for Niemi’s rights and signing him took care of what Nill called his biggest need. He cited the Stars’ brutal travel schedule — which according to On the Forecheck includes the third-most kilometres in the NHL and 12 back-to-backs — for wanting Niemi and fellow Finnish veteran Kari Lehtonen to split the goaltending work.

"I really think it’s becoming a two-goalie league now," Nill said at the draft in Sunrise, Fla. "It’s hard. You look around the league at the teams that had a lot of success, it’s because of two goalies."

In the absence of an elite goaltender, it’s a sound strategy in the Western Conference, which featured five playoff teams that had two goalies each start 30-plus games. Lehtonen started 65 in what Nill called a "tough year."

Sharp gives the Stars another top-six forward to complement Art Ross Trophy-winning captain Jamie Benn, centres Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza and young winger Valeri Nichushkin. Nill said the 33-year-old Sharp brings good veteran leadership to a young team.

In that trade, Dallas also got Johns, who at 23 provides even more depth on the blue line. After signing Oduya, the Stars have a defence corps of Alex Goligoski, all-rookie John Klingberg, Oduya, Jason Demers, Jyrki Jokipakka, Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak with Johns and Julius Honka and others knocking on the door.

Oduya becomes the wily veteran the Stars hope can mentor fellow Swedes Klingberg and Nemeth. Nill sees it as a balanced blue line.

"We’re sitting good," he said. "We’ve got some good young pieces coming. Potential’s just a word, but as history has shown you, if some of these guys get better and become better than what you ever dreamed of, we’re going to wake up one of these days with a pretty solid core of defencemen."

Potential is the word for the Stars, who now have the expectation to turn off-season improvements into real progress.

Oduya chose Dallas as a free agent, so naturally he believes that potential can be realized.

"It could be just a matter of one or two players maybe maturing a little bit more, taking that extra step and kind of breaking through that barrier," Oduya said. "I think all parts look good, it’s just a matter of taking that next step and really playing for it."

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