When Mike Modano was voted a starter in the NHL All-Star Game last month, it was for lifetime achievement rather than for the best performance by a center in the Western Conference this season. The best U.S.-born player ever to play in the NHL, the Stars' Modano is having the worst season of his 15-year career, and his puny stats—12 goals and 22 assists through Sunday—are just part of the story. Normally the league's most complete two-way forward, Modano has been mysteriously subpar in all areas.
"When Mo is at his best he does so many little things—face-offs, penalty killing, playing against other teams' top players,"says Dallas coach Dave Tippett. "He's done those things on and off, but not consistently."
Modano has picked up his game a little since returning from a groin injury that sidelined him for six games in January, but the franchise leader in goals (456) and games played (1,081) is still trying to regain his confidence. "You expect good things to happen the way they have throughout your career," says the 33-year-old Modano. "When those expectations aren't met, you have to battle a little bit between the ears."
Some observers believe Modano has buckled under the weight of the team captaincy he inherited when free-agent defenseman Derian Hatcher signed with the Red Wings last summer. The soft-spoken Modano rejects that notion and says that being captain of such a veteran team carries little extra pressure. He also points out that several other Stars started slowly, an indication that it took longer than expected for a team that started the season with three new faces on defense to jell.
Modano also had to play much of the fall without his usual right wing, Jere Lehtinen, who missed 16 games with back spasms. The absence of Lehtinen, a three-time Selke Trophy winner, contributed to Modano's-17 rating.
What's more, he has been distracted by financial woes. After agreeing this summer to a one-year, $9.5 million extension of the six-year, $43.5 million contract he signed in 1998, Modano learned in October that he had lost millions in failed business ventures. He won't get into specifics about his investments or exactly how much he lost, but the situation was dire enough that he went to Stars management for advice and help in lining up attorneys and finding a new business manager. Modano says that ordeal is behind him.
Despite the drop-off by Modano and their winning just 11 of their first 29 games, the Stars had worked their way up to second place (30-22-10-0) in the Pacific Division at week's end, and they held the fifth playoff spot in the Western Conference. With his team turning things around, Modano hopes to do the same. Says Tippett, "He can be the difference between us just getting in [to the playoffs] and being a very good team."