[Note: Thoughts with Brad, as he's spent the past few days caring for his daughter, who is sick. While he gets some rest, here's a guest post by yours truly. Don't get used to it.]
A little over a year ago, Tom Hicks made a decision.
No one knew what was coming and unlike most other times when a general manager is replaced, there was no warning and no rumors of a sudden change in the front office. No one knew this was coming, since Tom Hicks did this all by himself. The Dallas Stars had missed the playoffs, despite what seemed to have been a loaded roster at the time, as injuries took their toll on a team that had nothing but overwhelming pressure on their collective backs after going to the Western Conference finals in 2008.
Perhaps Hicks panicked a little. There was some thought that the coach and the front office had "lost" the locker room, especially after the Sean Avery fiasco. Whatever the case, Tom Hicks went out and made the decision to hire Joe Nieuwendyk as the GM of the Stars, and to reassign Brett Hull and Les Jackson within the organization.
Perhaps it was because, unbeknownst to the rest of us at the time, Hicks knew his time with this team was short. Despite any public statements that were made we now know that Hicks Sports Group, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers were in serious financial trouble and he would end up having to sell both franchises. Was this his last-grasp attempt to turn the Stars around, to bring in a general manager that would instantly change the direction of the team and hopefully jump-start the Stars into being playoff contenders once more?
That may have been his thought process while hiring Nieuwendyk, but so far all he's done is given the keys to a proud franchise over to his general manager without any funds available to fix it with it.
Every general manager has a "plan", a laid out process through which they will build their franchise and hopefully lead them to bigger and better successes then before. Depending on the organization, sometimes that plan is short term and based on instantly upgrading an already stout franchise. Sometimes it's long-term, predicated on rebuilding through the system and the draft while hopefully maintaining some level of success at the highest level.
In the NHL, the recent trend of success is based on teams building through the draft as they bring up their young talent through the ranks, while boosting their lineup with key free agent acquisitions. The Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings are the perfect examples of how this system works. These days, it's very rare for teams to go out and "buy" a successful team -- just ask the San Jose Sharks.
Sometimes a general manager takes over a franchise and already has a loaded gun; all he needs to do is to make several key, smart decisions regarding personnel at the NHL level and he has a winning team on the ice. The key to this type of franchise, however, is to have the funds necessary to make the changes that are needed.
Joe Nieuwendyk took over the Dallas Stars with one hand already tied behind his back. It's not too farfetched to say that he had a talented, but flawed, team on his hands and just a few smart moves would have given the Stars the opportunity they needed to get right back to where they were a few years prior. Instead, he inherited a team that was already hard up against the internal budget set forth by ownership and there was no way the Stars could have made the moves needed to significantly improve a talented team.
Take a look at the moves made last summer by Nieuwendyk. He signed Karlis Skrastins, Warren Peters, traded for Alex Auld and decided not to offer Sergei Zubov the money the aging defenseman was asking for. Other than working on contract extensions for Stephane Robidas and Louis Eriksson, Nieuwendyk wasn't able to accomplish much more.
Looking at the team that was on the ice, especially since they were healthy for much of the season, it's tough not to think that they should have been much more consistent and successful than they were in 2009-2010. Instead, we witnessed a repeat of almost the exact same season as the one before, although there's no doubting this one was much more frustrating.
When Nieuwendyk was hired, he was told by Tom Hicks that the overall philosophy of the organization needed to undergo a sudden change in direction. Nieuwendyk was hired to exact this change; this is a general manager that earned his job by saying he wanted to build a faster, more explosive and more exciting offensive team than the one that had been on the ice since he had been traded as a player in 2002.
This was the type of change Hicks wanted and believed the team needed -- it was also the sort of change he sought when he hired Nolan Ryan as team president of the Texas Rangers. Two years into Ryan's tenure, and the Rangers are a vastly different team and the overall attitude of the franchise and organization matches his. This is what Hicks was hoping for by hiring Nieuwendyk: a sudden change in attitude that could instantly boost a team on its way down.
Except there are a few glaring differences between the two decisions and the two franchises.
When Nolan Ryan assumed his post with the Rangers, he inherited a young and talented team that had one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. All he needed to do was to give the organization a good direction, change some attitudes and then watch as the young talent made it's way to the big leagues and the team started winning. There were some decisions to make along the way, but that was all up Jon Daniels.
For Joe Nieuwendyk, he inherited a team that was aging and nearly crippled by a number of contracts he didn't give out. The farm system for the Stars was in the bottom half of the NHL and aside from Jamie Benn (a player he didn't draft) there wasn't exactly a dearth of top-end talent ready to come up and make a difference. At the same time, Nieuwendyk was unable to make the big moves necessary to upgrade the team he did have.
When you factor in the hiring of Marc Crawford and the "new direction" that Nieuwendyk was hoping to lead this organization, then all you have is a organization that is spinning its wheels and going nowhere fast.
The Dallas Stars are stuck between going head-on into full rebuilding mode and trying to be the "win now" team. Where that leaves the organization is exactly in the middle and that's where the Stars have finished the past two seasons.
It takes time for a general manager to make his mark on a franchise and the organization, to build the team into what he wants through the draft. Essentially he's only had one draft with which to operate with anyways; the 2009 draft was purely the scouting director and Les Jackson running things, with Nieuwendyk's input as to where he'd like to see the team go.
Yet what has hurt Nieuwendyk and the Dallas Stars the most is the inability to make a difference via trade or free agency. The Stars are stuck right in that middle ground, and there's no doubt that adding one or two key free agents would instantly boost this team's ability to win more consistently. It's beyond frustrating to see just how far under the cap the Dallas Stars are while they are completely incapable of adding any free agents that would improve the team.
Nieuwendyk has also had the displeasure of being the GM when it was time for Sergei Zubov, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen to go. We don't know what will happen with Lehtinen, but he had the tough decision to make on Zubov and Modano, ones that instantly put him out of favor with the loyal Stars fanbase.
Perhaps if the budget were different the Stars could have kept the two but in Modano's case, it seems this was purely a decision that made with the "direction" the Stars are headed.
Despite all of the financial issues holding this team back, Joe Nieuwendyk is still trudging forward as he works to get his plan in place with the Dallas Stars. He wants a younger, faster and skilled set of forwards, bolstered by a defense that can makes plays with the puck. He traded for a goaltender that has the ability to be an elite NHL netminder for the Stars for the next three years, while drafting what could be the next franchise goaltender in Jack Campbell.
Unable to go out and get one defensemen either through trade or free agency, he signed a promising blueliner from Sweden while drafting several defensemen in the draft that boosts a weak farm system. He went out and signed a forward that will hopefully change the attitude on the team and give the Stars more confidence with each other, while maintain the high skill level up front the Stars have built over the years.
Not every decision Nieuwendyk has made has been a smart one and not every decision can be defended by calling out his limited payroll. The Krys Barch extension was a waste and I'm still not sold on Marc Crawford as a coach of the Dallas Stars.
Yet Nieuwendyk is playing with just half a deck, having to cut corners just to sign the RFA's the Stars desperately need to keep. He's caught somewhere between rebuilding the team while building a successful team now, and the entire Dallas Stars organization is caught in state of flux. Teams with limited payrolls must spend years building through the draft; thanks to the depleted farm system he inherited, Nieuwendyk is having to start from scratch if he goes that route.
Joe Nieuwendyk has a plan. Whether he'll have the time to see it through or if he'll ever have the funds he needs to do his job, and improve the Stars in the here and now.