Originally written on Beating The Buzzer  |  Last updated 11/29/11

SUNRISE, FL - JANUARY 30: Alex Steen #10 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against Joe Nieuwendyk #25 of the Florida Panthers at the Bank Atlantic Center January 30, 2006 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

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BY: DUSTIN POLLACK

Joe Nieuwendyk’s situation in Dallas hasn’t exactly been ideal.

For starters, last season he had to deal with an ownership group unwilling to spend and thus was forced to watch his franchise player Brad Richards head to the bright lights of Broadway, really for no other reason other than Nieuwendyk’s inability to offer him the type of long term, big-money contract that he was looking for.

And it’s not that the Stars didn’t have the money to offer Richards. Currently they’re one of the lowest spending teams in the NHL and have close to $13 million in cap space. The type of money that if a big market team had, could be used to sign two top-line players.

Unfortunately Nieuwendyk’s helplessness when it came to Richards was directly related to the two-year bankruptcy proceedings that former owner Tom Hicks was facing. Hicks didn’t give Nieuwendyk the opportunity to spend, thus leaving him and Dallas management to forge a roster to compete in the NHL’s competitive Pacific division with minimum resources.

Richards signed a nine-year $60 million contract with the Rangers this past summer.

But Nieuwendyk’s inability to go after another big name player to replace the one that left hasn’t stopped the recent hall-of-fame inductee turned general manager from putting together a competitive on-ice product.

Over the 2011 off season Nieuwendyk took separate risks in signing Stanley Cup champion Michael Ryder with the hope he’d return to a 50-60 point producer and defenseman Sheldon Souray who hadn’t played an NHL game since January 30, 2010, but could add a booming shot to the Stars powerplay if he could stay healthy.

Luckily for Nieuwendyk, both Ryder and Souray have taken on huge roles in Dallas and both are reasons why the Stars currently in 3rd place in the Western Conference with a more than respectable 14-9-1 record. Ryder is on pace first his first 30-goal season since he recorded 30 in back-to-seasons with the Montreal Canadiens in 2006 and 2007 and  his two goals sparked the Stars to a 3-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche last night. As for Souray, while he’s has drawn cold in the last stretch of games his 13 points in 24 outings already matches the total he put up in 37 games back in 2010 and he’s second on the Stars in overall ice time this season. Numbers that are more than productive for a defenseman whose cap hit in Dallas is just $1.65 million.

However, while there have been many positives surrounding the Stars this season, including a new owner in Canadian Tom Gaglardi who’s committed to putting a winning product on the ice in Dallas, a groin injury to starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen suffered over the weekend leaves a big question mark looming over the Stars.

In 68 starts last season Lehtonen won 34 games and had a .914 save percentage.

Lehtonen, who Nieuwendyk re-signed back in 2010 and has proven to be a major success story up until now – his 13 wins leads the NHL – has nagged groin injuries throughout his career. In fact it was part of the reason the Stars were able to snag him from the Atlanta Thrashers for so cheap in 2010. All it cost was Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth round pick in 2010.

At this point it’s unknown how severe Lehtonen’s injury is, but for now Andrew Raycroft will take the reins in goal. And his 1-5 record this season isn’t so reassuring, he made 35 saves last night and had a shutout for nearly 57 minutes. Last season, his first with the Stars, Raycroft was reliable when called upon winning eight of his 14 starts with a very respectable .910 save percentage.

After just missing the post-season in 2011, many projected the Stars to finish well outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference this season. And while that’s still possible a lot can be said for the work of Joe Nieuwendyk. And with a new owner in place who is willing to spend, there’s huge opportunity for Nieuwendyk to flourish at the helm in Dallas in the near future.

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