Last summer, newly appointed General Manager of the Dallas Stars Joe Nieuwendyk sent shockwaves through the Dallas hockey community when he fired long-time head coach Dave Tippett. Despite a disappointing season that was filled with injuries and player controversy, many felt that Tippett was still the best man for the job and deserved another shot after leading the Stars to the conference finals just one year before.
Except Joe Nieuwendyk was hired with the goal in mind of moving the Stars in a new direction, of pushing towards the future with a new philosophy and approach to hockey, for a team that held on to the old ways perhaps a few years too long. His first step down this new road was hiring Marc Crawford, a former Stanley Cup-winning coach who had been successful in Colorado and Vancouver with aggressively offensive hockey teams -- certainly a very different approach than what was in Dallas with Dave Tippett.
At the time, there was excitement to see just what the Stars would do when allowed to open up offensively. We were also a bit cautious to expect any big and soaring changes over the course of just one summer and almost immediately into the 2009-10 season we realized just how much work was needed by Marc Crawford to turn the Dallas Stars into "his" team.
Stars fans lamented the lack of emotion that Crawford displayed on the bench and off the ice, a stark contrast to what we knew of him from his time in Colorado and Vancouver. There was questions regarding his ability to effectively coach a team any longer, especially when you consider what happened in Los Angeles, and there were many times last season that the Stars were nothing more than an utterly lost hockey team with no sense of direction or identity.
Many wondered just how long Crawford would have in Dallas and whether he should even be allowed to have a shot at a second season. The sports landscape is littered with coaches who never made it into the second season with a team, or at least all the way through that second season, as the NHL and other leagues have turned to a "what have you done for me lately" mentality that never allows coaches the ability to mold their team how they see fit.
Yet Joe Nieuwendyk had his vision set before him and he and Mark Crawford worked together to improve upon the team they had and continue to turn the Stars into the team they felt would be most successful. They embraced the youth of the team and with several smart contracts were able to lock up a number of young and promising players for the future. They made the difficult choices of letting two well-respected and capable veterans walk via free agency, all the while staying true to their plan to build a winner.
The key to these decisions was Marc Crawfords ability to coach his team, to connect with the players and find a way to have them buy into the system he's coaching. He tweaked his own style of coaching and the system itself to better suit the players on the ice and was able to make perhaps the most important addition of the offseason: the hiring of Willie Desjardins.
More than halfway through the 2010-11 season the Stars have maintained their position at the top of the standings. What some thought might have been an mere fluke, the Stars have proven time and again that this season they are a team to be feared. With each win the respect for this team grows around the NHL and you start to hear just how good other teams feel the Stars have become.
The Dallas Stars are playing as one cohesive team, every single player on the roster buying into the system and the common goal for success. There are no egos in the locker room and every player believes in the teammate skating next to him. Last season we questioned how a team could always fail to stick up for each other on the ice; this season the Stars approach each game with an aggressive pack mentality that says they won't be pushed around or stepped on.
Most important, however, is the fact that the Dallas Stars have now taken on the personality and approach of their coach. There is no question that he is in full command of this hockey team and he and his coaches have the pulse of the players nailed down perfectly. He's shown an innate ability to know when to scratch certain players and when to give Kari Lehtonen rest, and be successful with these moves as well.
What has been most impressive is how the Stars show the ability to learn from their mistakes -- not just game to game, but within the games as well. They adjust better than perhaps any team in the NHL within a game, and are one of the best at taking the lessons from a tough loss and applying them to a convincing win a few nights later.
Dallas Stars fans will always be cautiously optimistic about a future past the regular season -- as least until that clinching game does come -- but there's no questioning that this team not only has it's sights set on the postseason, but beyond as well. This is a very confident, very proud hockey team and you have to look no further than the coach behind the bench to understand what's made this season so successful to this point.
The key, of course, is to keep improving. This is not a perfect team, Mr. Crawford; still have some work to do yet.