When Tom Hicks hired Joe Nieuwendyk as the new general manager of the Dallas Stars back in June of 2009, it was with the express goal of taking the franchise in a new direction. After years of traveling down the same road with Doug Armstrong and Dave Tippett, one that was relatively successful but overall disappointing, the Stars had began to take new paths with Les Jackson heading the way; a focus on youth and building through the draft, which led to the emergence of Loui Eriksson and James Neal and drafting players like Philip Larsen and Jamie Benn.
Yet the Stars were still fighting against the "old ways", a system that had been in place for well over a decade since the days of Bob Gainey and one that many felt had passed the team by. Whether it was the age of the players on the team or whether coach Dave Tippett had seemingly lost control of the locker room, it was apparent that the Stars were stuck in "just good enough" mode and never able to truly take that next step as an organization.
Hate him or not, it's tough to deny that Hicks' decision to completely shake up the franchise with the hiring of Nieuwendyk was one of necessity. He made the change knowing that Tippett was likely to be fired, wanting the overall personality and direction of the franchise to change in one last effort to get success from his hockey team.
While fans were excited about the prospect of Nieuwendyk bringing his hockey acumen, his famous work ethic and quiet intensity to the Dallas Stars, the firing of Tippett left many wondering if he truly knew what he was doing. The release of Mike Modano and Marty Turco soured many fans last summer and cries began to ring out the one-time great for the Stars was ruining what was at least a great legacy for a proud franchise.
As the Stars sit on top of the Pacific division midway through January, it's impossible to now deny that Nieuwendyk has done everything needed to turn this hockey team from one that was just good enough, to one that can potentially be exceptionally great.
The changes in personnel have overall been minimal. The changes that have been made, however, have had very positive and long-lasting effects. The trade for Kari Lehtonen and the free agent acquisitions of Adam Burish and Andrew Raycroft have completely changed the complexion of the Dallas Stars, solidifying a position of disappointment the past few seasons and giving the team the attitude and grit they so desperately needed in years past.
Many were disappointed after a season of futility last season, and rightfully so. Yet like so many other times across sports, a new management and coaching regime needs time to make the far-reaching changes they feel is needed to move the franchise forward. After deciding to part ways with Modano and Turco, Nieuwendyk made it clear that the Stars were going to forging ahead with a new identity as one that is a hard working, physical team that is aggressive on offense and is one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL.
Fans were skeptical. They'd heard this before.
The changes started in training camp. Marc Crawford and his new assistant Willie Desjardins focused on the details and Nieuwendyk's calculated moves as general manager backed up the system they were continuing from the year before. From the very first week of the NHL season, it was instantly obvious just how different this hockey team had become over just the course of one summer.
It's amazing what can happen when a head coach and general manager have the same vision and work to complement each other to move forward and fulfill the vision they have for success. Marc Crawford has this hockey team dialed in completely, charging ahead as one of the best teams in the NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk has made all the right moves, and has even managed to lock down the young players on the team for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps most impressive is how Nieuwendyk has managed to provide a calming force amidst a sea of uncertainty and turmoil as the team fights through financial adversity and the rocky sale of the franchise. He's manage to insulate the team from as many distractions as possible, somehow making the impending free agency of the team's best player a sidenote while the Stars win night after night.
When Nieuwendyk was hired, we were excited about the possibility of the Stars becoming a strong willed and hard working team once more -- just as they were when Nieuwendyk was playing. Though the early returns were mixed, and sometimes troubling, it's taken less than two seasons for the Stars general manager to put his mark on the franchise and the NHL. Halfway through the 2010-2011 season, the Stars are a hard working and mentally tough team, taking on the personality of the quietly intense general manager that is running the show.
The Dallas Stars still have a very long ways to go to be successful this season. Yet with each passing week, the Stars prove more and more that their success so far is more than a fluke. We have Joe Nieuwendyk, first and foremost, to thank for that.