Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Chatting Hockey with Mike Heika

stars-logoWith the passing of Labor Day, I feel it is time to unleash the first hockey writing from my finger-tips in months. It has been an incredibly slow summer since the changing of the Head Coach and General Manager back in early June. That is a radical change to the team, and perhaps that will be enough to raise this team from its disappointing and scarring year.

Once I got my hockey brain working yesterday, I thought I would contact my long-time hockey media colleague, Mike Heika, of the Dallas Morning News, to see what he thinks about the items on my mind with the first hockey chat of the season.

There are plenty of items to visit about, so here you go:

Bob: OK, let's begin. So, what are you doing covering hockey already on Labor Day?

Mike: I grew up here in beautiful Traverse City, Mich. (Go Trojans!), so I get to take a little vacation and visit this prospects tournament every year. It's a lot of fun and you get to see some pretty good hockey.

Bob: last year, wasn't this where we saw James Neal begin his emergence?

Mike: Exactly. And Jamie Benn started out what was the transition year of his career. And Fabian Brunnstrom got his first look at North American hockey, so it's an important step for the kids.

Bob: I want to get more into that if we have time later on, but we need to focus on the pressing matters of the present first. So, let's start with the goalie situation. Nothing on a Turco extension tells me that the Stars aren't worried about the spot. Curious! Or should I merely assume that all roads lead to not spending money until the baseball franchise gets sold?

Mike: Yes and no on that one. An extension for Turco wouldn't kick in until next year, so Tom Hicks should have things straightened out by then (you would think?). I think they will talk extension with Steve Ott and Stephane Robidas and Loui Eriksson. I really think they have to gather more information before they can discuss an extension with Turco.

Bob: Explain what you mean. They need more info on Turco?

Mike: Well, it's a lot like Sergei Zubov. If a player is established and has a fairly high price tag, yet is still a bit of a risk, do you even attempt an offer if that offer would be deemed insulting? I mean, honestly, what would you offer Turco right now? $5.7 million again? I don't think anyone would do that. So do you offer him $4 million? $3 million? And for how long? I think they will risk losing him rather than locking him in for a long term....They will watch him this year and decide if he is their goalie for the next years. If not, they will study the free agency market or look at thye kids like Richard Bachman or Tyler Beskorowany (my guess is they are both too young right now).

Bob: Right. That is the rub, isn't it? Zubov can sort of be replaced (although not quite). But, your Goalie is like your QB. It is not just a question of him. It is a question of "if not him, then who?" There are a lot of teams that are looking for their goalie, and the Stars have not been in that boat for a while.

Bob: I bet the Swedish Monster and that signing really affected this whole scenario. If they get him signed, the whole situation changes.

Mike: True. It is a risk. But there are also goalies out there every year. You could have signed Clemmensen or Anderson or Conklin this year. Detroit always finds an answer. I agree it is a huge risk, but I think Turco would like to stay, understands the situation and wants to prove himself to get a new contract. I think it's a calculated risk. I actually think had they signed the Monster, they would have been even more hesitant to discuss an extension.

Mike: I think you're right that the Stars don't have a clear answer beyond Turco in goal, but that's the risk they are willing to take.

Bob: But, would you also agree that backup seems as strong as it has been in sometime?Auld seems perfect for the role

Mike: Yes. Marc Crawford and Andy Moog are comfortable with Alex Auld, having worked with him in Vancouver, so they will trust using him. And I think the reason he left Ottawa also supports that they weren't tired of him. They traded for Pascal Leclaire as their No. 1 and they have the goalie of the future as their backup. There just wasn't room for Auld.

Bob: OK, here is my biggest concern of the summer: They needed to address the need for a horse on the blueline, and they went pretty cheap. I know economic times are tough but I am not convinced they are much better on D. This is a major concern.

Mike: I agree. I watched the prospects game last night, and while it is still early in the process, it's clear the system will force the defensemen to be able to carry the puck and also defend in open ice. It will be a huge challenge for the defense. The Stars are hoping that Grossman, Daley and Niskanen will take steps forward in their natural progression and that Karlis Skrastins will offer some steady play. A risk brought on by a $10 million reduction in payroll.

Bob: yes. I don't mean to make this about the HSG money crunch, but it affects everything. Liverpool, Rangers, and Stars are all being incredibly conservative in addressing their issues, and it is tough not to discuss the elephant in the room. In a normal summer, they certainly would have kicked the tires on Pronger, right? Although the Ducks might not have been in a hurry to keep in the Pacific

Mike: Pronger's deal is so much, I don't think the Stars would have been able to do that in a normal year. But there are certainly options better than Karlis Skrastins and Jeff Woywitka.

Bob: Who is spending to or near the cap in the West off the top of your head?

Mike: I just checked the numbers. The Stars at $48 million in cap hit are outspending Phoenix. Colorado and Nashville in the West. Teams against the cap right now are Chicago, Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver. San Jose and Anaheim each have a little room to work with ($3-4 million) surprisingly.

Bob: Whoa. Are you saying the Stars are only spending more than 3 teams in the west?
The LA Kings, Edmonton Oilers, and Columbus Blue Jackets are spending more???

Mike: Oops, Columbus is at $47 million, but the Kings are at $51 million and the Oilers are at $55 million

Bob: Mike, this is a dramatic departure from what we are used to. The Stars are used to being the money bullies. Rangers fans want the team sold, but Stars fans should be cheering for a quick Rangers sale, too, eh?

Mike: Well, it depends on who buys the team. I know there are a lot of critics of Tom Hicks, but he has been a good owner for the Stars. I think it's a bit of a knee jerk to say his 12 years of good ownership should be washed away by one year of bad. He spent over the cap last year. If he sells the Rangers and if he gets his business in line, I really think Tom Hicks can be a fine hockey owner.

Bob: I agree. My issue is with him spreading himself too thin. Despite what he said about buying Liverpool, it has certainly changed everything about his teams here. He is just spread too thin.

Mike: I think the decision to hire Joe Nieuwendyk was a sign that he really does care about the team and was willing to admit his co-GM deal didn't work.

Bob: Sure. I just wonder if Nieuwy knew the limits on his ability to do anything with this team all summer.

Mike: I agree with you on Liverpool, but he keeps telling me they are separate entities and don't affect one another financially. We'll see, I guess, if he can sell the Rangers and get the price he wants. Then, Hicks Sports Group would basically just be the Stars.

Bob: He also keeps telling us that everything is fine with the Rangers despite a loan to make payroll. I don't think I believe everything these days.

Mike: Good point. He definitely appears to be juggling. I guess we'll just have to wait and see on him. If the team doesn't win and if fans aren't there, the team will be in financial trouble.

Bob: Anyway, to digress back to hockey, let's talk PP and PK. The special teams were horrid last year. How much better will they be since Zubov is gone?

Mike: I detect some sarcasm there...They actually could be better because they hopefully have learned how to survive without Zubov. Brad Richards is a capable point man, but he does not have a big shot. Mike Modano has a big shot, but I'm not sure he's a capable point man anymore. They have issues. They also have issues with not enough right shots (in part, because Mike Ribeiro's vision from behind the net sets up better if he has player

Mike: There is a whole new coaching staff with a new way of looking at things, so that will obviously change things.

Bob: do you have any thoughts on what the coaching change means? Is Crawford the tough guy that his reputation suggests?

Mike: I hear yes and no. He seems very sincere in that his two-year stint in LA and his year in the television booth have both humbled him. But I also hear people say he will go off at a moment's notice. Joe Nieuwendyk said the other day, ``I don't mind the players being uncomfortable. I think that can be a good thing.'' So we'll see if Crawford also embraces that philosophy.

Bob: Did the team need such radical changes this summer at coach and GM?

Mike: That's a really tough question. Many people I talk to inside say yes. I personally would have loved to see Les Jackson get at least one year to run the team by himself. Les had a vision of a very optimistic and upbeat organization, and he never really got to install that. It would be interesting to see if it could work in pro sports.

Bob: Who needed to go more? The 2 man GM situation? Tippett? Or I have even heard it was time to turn over the assistants. long overdue actually when it came to a fresh message from the assistants.

Mike: The two-man GM thing had to go. Brett is a great guy, but is just naturally negative, He was the king of the negative knee-jerk. He and Les were just too different. I love Rick Wilson, but he was too powerful for an assitant coach _ especially with a lot of skilled young defensemen here. It would have been interesting to see what Dave Tippett could do if Charlie Huddy was his defensive assistant.

Bob: I have taken an hour, so let me wrap this up quickly...Who would you compare Skrastins to around here for Stars fans to imagine his game?

Mike: Okie-dokie (although I've got nothing). I would say Mattias Norstrom or Richard Matvichuk. He is a very solid, very sturdy defensive presence in front of the net. He averaged 20:33 last year for Florida and was plus-9. He also had 171 blocked shots. He's a good veteran to pair with a kid.

Bob: That is needed around here for sure. Your 6 Dmen on Opening night?

Mike: Wow. How about Daley-Robidas, Skrastins-Niskanen, Grossman-Fistric

Bob: ok, so Woywitka is purely depth?

Mike: I think so. He washed out in St. Louis _ although you could say he could battle and allow the coaches to scratch one of the kids to send a message. I like Fistric, so I think he will move ahead of Woywitka.

Bob: I really want Fistric to emerge. He has too high a ceiling to play like he did last year.

Mike: He learned a lot in that playoff run with Manitoba

Bob: What new names make the opening night 20?

Mike: I'm not sure any past Auld, Skrastins and Woywitka. Benn will have to jump over Morrow, Eriksson, Neal, Brunnstrom and Ott. Vishnevskiy would have to push past Daley and Niskanen (basically forcing a trade) to open up space. I think they anchor the Texas Stars and get some experience there.

Bob: cool. Let's do this again sometime soon. I really appreciate your time, my good man. Hockey approaches.

Mike: Any time. I love the show and expect you to be cheering wildly for my Lions.

Bob: done. As long as they beat the Vikes and Bears I am pleased

Mike: Consider it done.

Bob: take it easy, Mike- thanks!

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