The Stanley Cup winning goalie, coach and general manager all departed.
Ed Belfour, the fan favorite in net, became a free agent last summer and signed with Toronto. Ken Hitchcock, the coach who over seven years transformed the Dallas Stars from wannabes to perennial contenders, was fired during last season's disappointing campaign. Bob Gainey, the executive who built Dallas's 1999 championship club, no longer wanted to oversee daily operations.
The men who would replace that trio had never done their jobs at the NHL level and would inherit a team with a massive payroll and extreme pressure amid the highest of expectations. If the Dallas Stars were going to rebound from last season's failure to qualify for the playoffs, they were going to do so in unorthodox style.
Doug Armstrong, the rookie general manager who had apprenticed for nine years under Gainey, chose esteemed minor league coach Dave Tippett, who had never served as a head coach in the NHL. And, after training camp, that duo presented 27-year-old backup goalie Marty Turco, who had won only 28 NHL games, with the chance to fill Belfour's skates. It could have failed miserably, with Armstrong overhauling the roster in the offseason and altering a long-entrenched group, yet the Stars head into the final months of the season with the NHL's best record, a new all-star goalie who hasn't lost in 14 consecutive starts, and, in the opinion of many scouts, the NHL's most complete team.
"That's not the same team I coached," said Hitchcock, Philadelphia's coach and a potential Stanley Cup finals opponent. "They added a lot of good players, and they needed to do that because that existing group, they still wanted a run but there just wasn't enough there, and they added [power forward Bill] Guerin and [defenseman Philippe] Boucher and [checking winger Ulf] Dahlen and [goal scorer] Scott Young and [defenseman Stephane] Robidas.
"They did a great job to do what they had to do to keep that team running. They made the decision to go for the top and they put the right people in place, which is what we were trying to do before but it wasn't working. They went and added the right mix and they are off and running.
"Those guys have provided that level of depth that you need."
Severing ties with the Hitchcock/Gainey regime was not easy. The Stars missed the playoffs before Hitchcock's first full season behind the bench, then won their division five straight years, reached the league's final four three straight seasons (1998-2000), reached the finals in 1999 and 2000 and won the Cup in 1999.
But a second-round ouster in 2001, followed by last season's playoff absence -- despite a solid 36-28-13-5 record -- resulted in the sweeping changes. Belfour's wavering play, tantrums and brushes with the law became a distraction. Hitchcock's sometimes-fanatical attention to defensive detail grated on longtime Stars such as Mike Modano. Armstrong, who became GM in January 2002, hoped that an injection of talent, brawn and a new voice of authority would return the team to greatness.
"Dave brought a different and fresh approach to our style of play," Armstrong said. "He has a different outlook and a new voice and it's something the players have really taken to. Dave is a demanding coach, but in a different demeanor than Ken has. They're both trying to get the same message across but with a different style."
Tippett, a former Washington Capital, still emphasizes defensive principles, but players have more freedom to skate and pass the puck. The Stars are no longer a grinding team looking to dump the puck and bruise opponents along the boards. With an influx of forwards like Pierre Turgeon, Jason Arnott, Young and Guerin over the last 18 months the team has more speed and more open-ice creativity.
"We still stress strong defense and good one-on-one play in our own zone," said Modano, who was selected first overall by this franchise in 1988. "But when we get the puck we have a little bit different belief in what we want to do with it and our idea now is maybe to hold on to it a little more and not give it away. We don't dump it as much. That may be our last resort, but if we have speed and attack going through the neutral zone, that's pretty much a green light to do something and carry the puck and make plays."
Armstrong liked his group of centers, but coveted more dynamic wingers -- Guerin, Young and Dahlen all apply -- and wanted to balance his defensive pairings with right and left handed shots, which would allow Derian Hatcher, one of the NHL's most dominant physical defenders, to move back to the left side and perhaps return to form. Signing Boucher and claiming Robidas in the waiver draft facilitated that switch and Hatcher is again a force.
Guerin was Armstrong's most significant acquisition. He is one of the most difficult players in the NHL to contain, possessing a blend of speed, strength, and an ability to score from anywhere on the ice.
"The biggest reason I signed here was the commitment to winning a Stanley Cup," Guerin said. "There are no guarantees, but when you are playing in Dallas one thing you can count on is they're going to give you an opportunity to win every year."
Guerin rounded out Dallas's top line, building on years of playing with Modano in international tournaments for USA Hockey. The Stars outbid their chief rivals, Detroit, to secure the free agent, making it even sweeter, and fortifying their lineup for a potential playoff series.
"They've got such a balance of skill and size and offense and defense," said Red Wings Coach Dave Lewis, whose team has played four tie games with Dallas this season. "They've got great size on defense -- it's so hard to get at their net -- their goaltender has been tremendous all season every night and they have four tough forward lines; three that can score and a fourth with some tough checkers. They might be the most difficult team to match up against."
Replacing Belfour was the trickiest challenge. His play slipped last season, but twice he was named the NHL's top goalie, he had played in five all-star games and he was among the most playoff-tested goaltenders in the NHL. Turco, while splendid as a backup, has never played in the postseason.
Armstrong acquired veteran Ron Tugnutt to compete with Turco for the job -- "We did hedge our bet considerably by getting an established goalie like Ron," Armstrong said -- and Turco earned the opening night start and never looked back.
"To get a chance to play is all I ever wanted," Turco said. "I was never trying to kick Ed out or take his job, I just hoped down the road that I would get a chance and, when I got the chance, not just play a couple of good games but really be there for my teammates for an entire season or a few years."
Turco leads the NHL in goals against average (1.77) and second in save percentage (.931) while posting 25 wins and the Stars seem to have everything in place for another prolonged playoff run. Yet Armstrong's work continues. Executives around the NHL expect the Stars to land another forward before the March 11 trade deadline and Armstrong knows that his team's accomplishments could be undone by a quick playoff exit.
The truest test of the unproven trio is yet to come.
"Our ownership has given us the resources to have a successful team in the regular season and playoffs," Armstrong said. "We'll be judged on how we close out the regular season and on how we do in playoffs. That's when you expect to be judged, and that's when we want to be judged."