Stars can score, so focus is defense after missing playoffs

April 13, 2015

FRISCO, Texas (AP) Jamie Benn won the NHL scoring title despite playing most of the season with bad hips that will require surgery. Tyler Seguin might have taken the honor if not for a knee injury.

The Dallas Stars can score with anyone, so the best way to explain missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons rests with defense and goaltending.

More specifically, they face this question going into yet another long offseason: Can Kari Lehtonen take this franchise deep in the playoffs the way Ed Belfour did when the Stars were perennial Stanley Cup contenders nearly two decades ago?

''I think if Kari can sort out some of the demons he had this year, yeah,'' coach Lindy Ruff said Monday. ''I think when you're asking for that, I think there's going to have to be an improvement. But I think he's got the skill set that can get it done.''

There's no question the Stars have plenty of skill. Benn and Seguin were among the top seven scorers in the league. Jason Spezza is a high-priced forward expecting much bigger things now that he's been through the adjustments of a first season in Dallas after spending the first 11 years of his career in Ottawa.

Dallas showed some grit, too, with Benn taking several injections to play all 82 games with hip issues that will now get fixed with offseason surgery.

And Benn didn't slow down near the end. The 25-year-old had 10 points (five goals, five assists) in the last three games to overtake an elite group and win the Art Ross Trophy as the top scorer with 87 points (35 goals, 52 assists). General manager Jim Nill said Benn should be ready for training camp in September.

Two promising young players - forward Valeri Nichushkin and defenseman Patrik Nemeth - missed most of the season with injuries but returned before it was over.

Nemeth and rookie of the year candidate John Klingberg are among the young defensemen who make Ruff believe the Stars can fix their issues in front of the net. They showed it when Dallas won 14 of its last 19 games.

''Probably the biggest difference-maker in our game, the way that they played,'' Ruff said. ''It made us more mobile, it made us better defenders, it changed the complexion of our team. It's the one thing that put a smile on my face.''

If the defense is fixed, the focus turns to Lehtonen. The former No. 2 overall pick has three years left on his contract at nearly $6 million per season, and is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his 11-year career.

''I realize that I had a not good year and I just have to do a lot of work to get the opportunity to play again and play better when I get the opportunity,'' Lehtonen said. ''It's pretty simple.''

The solution might not be as simple, since Ruff believes Lehtonen's problem is a tendency to let bad goals affect him the rest of a game - and sometimes even into the next one.

''I thought he had a real good push and then late had a couple of tough games that hurt us,'' Ruff said. ''But it kind of mirrored our season where it was inconsistent and he never really did quite get on that roll we really needed him to get on, that you're hoping a goaltender can do for us.''

The Stars finished with 92 points, one better than a season ago when they ended a five-year playoff drought before losing to Anaheim in six games in the first round.

But a seven-game winning streak put them in an early hole. Just when it looked Dallas would dig out of it, a six-game skid hit while Seguin was sidelined 10 games with a right knee injury. He returned earlier than expected, and the Stars stayed in the playoff picture longer than expected.

Ultimately, the surge came too late.

''I think we can beat any team in this league,'' Benn said. ''That's why it's so tough being here today. We should be in the playoffs.''

The Stars will have to wait a year to prove it.