On Tuesday, not 48 hours after the Dallas Stars were eliminated from postseason contention with a painful loss in Minnesota, the team relieved Marc Crawford of his coaching duties and once again sent this fanbase and organization into a state of shock. Just like two years ago, when Joe Nieuwendyk's first decision as general manager was to fire Dave Tippett and hire Crawford, fans are left wondering just what happened to warrant the change and to try and rationalize another bold move by the Stars G.M.
It's very tough to say that this decision was expected, even with the disappointing way in which the season ended. The Dallas Stars had definitely improved during Crawford's second season as head coach and there was a growing feeling that the players had finally bought into Crawford's system. There was more heart on display and the team showed incredible grit as they somehow won games they never had any business winning -- in the first half of the season, at least.
When you consider what teams are in need of new coaching, ones that finish with 95 points and were just a win away from the post season certainly don't come to mind. Yet the Dallas Stars had their expectations set high, especially after making it through 51 games as the leader of the Pacific Division, and the way the season ended you can't help but feel the bitter disappointment of another missed postseason was just too much for Joe Nieuwendyk to take.
During his press conference, Nieuwendyk stated that the Stars have their sights set on being an elite team in the Western Conference and he hinted that there should be no excuses on why this didn't happen. The Stars were able to hang with the best teams in the NHL -- except Vancouver -- yet fell apart when the season was on the line.
Ultimately, the frustrating performances in the season's biggest games falls on the shoulders of the head coach. It was apparently time to move on.
One reason this move was so shocking to many of us had more to do with what is happening off the ice than on the ice. The Stars are still without an owner and the financial situation of the future is questionable at best. Crawford had one more year left on his contract and there was a feeling that if perhaps the team added a few more pieces to the puzzle perhaps he could start to really take that next step. Many felt that Crawford would at least get to start the season and see if any changes made this summer fueled an improvement in consistency and performance.
He obviously was never going to get that chance.
Through the first half of this season and into January, many felt that Marc Crawford could possibly have been Jack Adams candidate for coach of the year. His team was sitting on top of the Pacific Division when no one felt they had a chance at even making the playoffs. There was a time in the middle of the season that the general consensus was the Dallas Stars were a top 5 team in the NHL, playing a superb blend of offense and defense.
It was extremely exciting to see, yet many Stars fans were worried if it was all a delusion and the Stars would come crashing back down to earth. The numbers didn't support the Stars as a top team in the NHL and despite winning so many games through January, there was a feeling that the Stars were playing with fire, that their lack of consistency within games would eventually be their downfall.
When that slide eventually did happen, Crawford had no answer. The Stars were met with incredibly adversity and instead of facing it head on and accepting the challenge, the coach and the team were at a complete loss on how to stop the great season from completely unraveling at the seams.
It could be argued that only the return of Jamie Benn, playing the best hockey of his career for a 10-15 game stretch, saved the second half of the season for the Stars. He was so incredible after returning from injury that Crawford played him on nearly every line in nearly every situation during the game, doing all he could to take advantage of one hell of a hockey player. Unfortunately, this desperate act just wasn't enough.
It's tough to describe what it felt like as a Dallas Stars fan to see so many teams take their game up to that next level, while the Stars were left woefully behind in the race. The Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, and Los Angeles Kings all won the games in the final months of the season they needed to in order to make the playoffs. The Dallas Stars did not.
It was apparent that these teams were operating on a different gear all together, and the Stars were completely at a loss at how to fix their troubles and accept the challenge that laid before them. The Stars lost every single game they desperately needed to win in the final month of the season, even after supposedly turning things around in early March. When the Stars needed to step it up the most, respond to adversity and play to the top of their potential, they stumbled -- and it was there that the season was lost.
You also get the feeling that the Stars weren't getting the Marc Crawford they were expecting when he was hired. Many felt that Crawford was hired to be the opposite of Dave Tippett, an offensively-minded coach with an attitude that could deliver a swift kick in the pants of the Stars and wake them up after a disappointing season. After two years, all we ever saw was a coach that soft-spoken and rarely showed emotion -- a coach that rarely addressed the negative aspects of his hockey team while choosing to focus solely on the positives, no matter what might have happened on the ice.
I wrote on Monday that this past season, while disappointing and frustrating, was still a success. I stand by that assessment, even while I rationalize the firing of the head coach. While the Dallas Stars certainly improved upon what they had accomplished in the past two seasons, it was obvious that there were many coaching decisions and shortcomings that negatively affected the outcome of this season. Sure, individual player performances were beyond frustrating but when you sit and watch a team lose all confidence, heart and drive during the most important stretch of games of the season -- that all comes down on the head coach.
The fact that the Dallas Stars didn't make the postseason, clearly the most important goal this season for Joe Nieuwendyk, likely had a lot to do with the decision to fire Marc Crawford. I get the feeling, however, that if the Stars had played to the best of their ability and maxed out game after game in effort and execution yet still failed to make the postseason -- Crawford would still be the coach of this team.
The way the Stars responded to adversity -- whether it was injuries, or bad bounces or anything -- was troubling. This team lost all of its confidence after the big loss to Vancouver just before the All Stars break and crumbled with the pressure mounted in March and April. The team never appeared to be fully prepared for the biggest games and several roster and coaching decisions appeared to put the Stars at a complete disadvantage when they needed consistency and effort the most.
When all the chips were on the table and each and every decision carried more weight than the last, Crawford failed to rise to the challenge. Keeping Marc Fistric out of the lineup against the most physical teams in the conference. Questionable decisions regarding line combinations and the lack of an ability to build consistency from game to game. These all affected the performances of the team in games they had to win to make the playoffs, and nearly every time they failed to step up.
You could see an obvious lack of confidence amongst the players the last two months of the season, but it was the final game of the season in Minnesota that the problems that were present on this team truly showed themselves. The Stars were not mentally prepared for the biggest game of the season, a game that if they could just find any way to win they'd earn a spot in the playoffs. They were sluggish, nervous and made mental mistakes galore. What was most troubling was that these were the same mistakes that had plagued the team all season long -- for whatever reason, Crawford failed to get his team to improve in areas that mattered the most.
All of the vital aspects of a successful team? The Dallas Stars were at or near the bottom of the NHL in nearly every category.
Ultimately, all of this comes back on the head coach. While it may be shocking that Crawford received just two seasons to try and make it work, in the end you get the feeling that he never maxed out the effort and production of the talent he had on the ice.
It's not just about winning and getting to the postseason, it's about proving that you have the potential to get there if given the tools to do so. If the Stars stumbled so bad with a relatively talented roster and showed some inconsistent effort and absolutely zero confidence in the biggest games of the season, then how is there a guarantee that Crawford can make it work if improvements are made by Nieuwendyk?
Joe Nieuwendyk stated that his decision was based on the fact he felt that Marc Crawford was not the coach to take the Dallas Stars to the next level. After watching the final three months of this season, it's hard to argue with him.