Monday, October 9, 2006

madano still the man in dallas

Modano still Stars' central force By MIKE HEIKA / The Dallas Morning News
It's not like Mike Modano hasn't played through distractions before.

There was that breakup with longtime girlfriend Kerry Nelson. There was that time his Stanley Cup ring wound up on eBay. There was that time his financial adviser mismanaged a huge chunk of his savings.

So losing the captaincy, heck, that's small potatoes. All right, maybe not that small, but Modano said that it's something he can handle.

"I wasn't happy, I didn't think I did a bad job and I was disappointed," he said. "But it's time to move forward, and that's what I'm going to do. There's no use thinking about it or talking about. It's not going to help us play any better this year."

And Modano wants to play better. Even after leading the team last season with 77 points, even with a strong comeback from a distraction-filled 2003-04 campaign, even having proven critics wrong for the third ... or fourth ... or fifth time, Modano still wants to play better. And the funny thing is, he can.

"If the rule changes continue to go the way they have, they're playing right into Mike's hands," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "The thing about Mike is he is a tremendous skater, just an incredible athlete, and he hasn't lost a step. He takes great care of himself and he still can fly, and these rules really reward players like that."

In a game built for speed, Modano might be experiencing a rebirth at 36. In four preseason games, Modano had three goals and three assists and was plus-5. Through two regular-season games, he has only one goal but is plus-2 and has seven shots on goal. Those aren't earth-shaking numbers, but there is a feel around the team that Modano could be ready for an explosive season. Consider these points:

•Linemate Jussi Jokinen scored only 17 goals last season as a rookie. Jokinen should be better at putting the puck in the net this season – he had three goals in five preseason games. Modano could pick up some points from Jokinen's improvement.

•The power play that struggled during the early past of last season was among the top three in the league (22.2 percent) after the Olympic break. Continuing that trend has been one of the big projects for Tippett in the off-season, adding two key pieces in Jaroslav Modry and Eric Lindros and a key assistant coach in Ulf Dahlen. Modano could pick up points here.

•The addition of Jeff Halpern as a checking-line center should take some checking responsibility off Modano. For the last eight seasons, Modano and Jere Lehtinen have pretty much been matched against the other team's best players every night, with the thought being that Modano would always win those battles. But in recent playoff series against Colorado, Modano's line struggled against Joe Sakic's line – and there was no real help from Niko Kapanen. But Halpern is different. He is more of a tenacious center who can attack opposing team's top players and give Modano a break.

When the thought of a 90-point season was broached to Modano, he smiled. "It would be nice," he said "I haven't seen one of those in a while."

In fact, he has seen only two in his career – his last season in Minnesota (1992-93) and his first in Dallas (1993-94). So could a player who has had ups and downs find a huge up in the twilight of his career? Nothing is impossible.

"I think what's great about Mike is he doesn't worry about numbers, and he doesn't need the numbers to define a great season," Tippett said. "He could have 90, I don't know, but I think if you look at the consistency of his career numbers, you realize he could have 80 and do a lot of little things right and be one of the best players in the league." In fact, there is no doubt Modano still is the best player on the team.

"I know how other coaches think and I know how they game plan, and every single game plan against us starts with trying to stop him," Tippett said. "That's just a fact." Tippett added that Modano could have had 100-point seasons, but he is the type of player who gave that up for the chance to play for a winner. And, he believes, Modano will show that same attitude this season.

Brenden Morrow, who got a contract extension and the "C" for his sweater before the season started, said Modano already has been that way about the captaincy. "We've talked about it a little bit, and I know he is disappointed. But he's never shown any animosity to me about it," Morrow said, before joking: "We still have breakfast a couple of times a week, and he still pays when it's his turn."

And maybe Modano has learned from distractions. "He is a leader and he'll prove a lot of people wrong about that," said Darryl Sydor, a good friend of Modano's who is back with the Stars this season. "He's disappointed, but you'll just see it in hard work. I just think he's excited about playing. I just think he's ready to have some fun."

And what better way to handle a distraction than to have a little fun. "Honestly, I just want to play," Modano said. "I'm looking forward to the year."

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