Much of the focus on the Dallas Stars coaching search has been on the "system" that each prospective coach would bring and whether his style would fit what Joe Nieuwendyk is attempting to build in Dallas. It's a worthy concern, as there were certainly times over the past few years that it seemed as though the Stars were hesitant and unable to fully embrace the changes that Marc Crawford was bringing to the team.
That Nieuwendyk would want a coach that is much more capable of building on the changes that have been made is only logical. He's trying to change the overall direction of this franchise after years of being a defense-first team and while there have been some successes, overall it's been two very frustrating and disappointing years. Hiring the right coach to guide the Stars to the next level is going to be Nieuwendyk's most important decision to date.
Yet with all of this talk about system and style and philosophy and whether a coach is defensive or offensively oriented, we tend to overlook the qualities that sometimes matter most in his coach: the ability to connect with a team and make them believe in themselves, to give them the confidence they need to win on any given night against any given opponent.
The best coaches are able to guide a team to overcome shortcomings on a roster or to move past key injuries to top players; somehow their teams are able to face adversity head on and not only meet that challenge but rise above it. When we look back at the 2010-11 season, it's more than apparent that this was the inherent flaw in Marc Crawford's teams: when adversity was at its highest the Dallas Stars wilted, and that was the end of a surprisingly promising season.
The Dallas Stars from 2010-11 will always be remembered as a team that somehow found a way to fight back, over and over again, to come back from a deficit and find a way to win late in the game. What was most frustrating about this fact was that the Stars were having to fight back because they were playing superior teams; most times the Stars were forced to come from behind for a win because they played like rancid dog meat for at least the first period of the game.
For a good while we overlooked these poor starts and focused on the "grit" that this team possessed, that perhaps something special was brewing in Dallas because this was a team that would never give up and would constantly find ways to win a game no matter what had happened in the first 40 minutes.
As time went on, and these poor starts became more frequent, worry began to set in. We questioned whether their level of success was sustainable given their complete lack of ability to play a full game from the first drop of the puck. There was genuine concern that at some point, these emotional comeback victories would take their toll and the Stars would fall apart.
Eventually that collapse occurred, starting in Vancouver and continuing into one of the worst games the Dallas Stars have ever played, a stinker of a loss against the Boston Bruins. Ironically, the Stars nearly pulled off another comeback in Boston that threatened to cover up just how badly the team had played to start the game.
Those losses kicked off an avalanche of losses, a snowball of epic proportions that watched the Stars collapse from the top of the Pacific division to being completely out of the playoff picture. What hurt the most was not just seeing the Stars tumbling down the Western Conference standings -- it was watching a team that obviously had absolutely zero confidence in themselves as a team and had no clue how to stop the snowball from gaining speed as it hurtled down the mountain.
Many will turn to the injuries the Stars were dealt in February -- most notably Brad Richards and Jamie Benn -- and state that the Stars just didn't have the talent to overcome such losses. If we think back to those games, however, we remember that this wasn't a team that was losing just because of a simple talent shortage. This was a team that had fallen to pieces and were playing like a team without confidence, without direction and without a single, solitary plan on how to correct their shortcomings.
Even when the roster was healthy once more, the Stars were missing something. Against teams that had just as much to play for the Stars were clearly the weaker opponent, failing to rise to the challenge of playing a game as if their season were on the line. The losses to division opponents in the final month of the season will haunt this franchise for months to come.
In those games -- against Nashville, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Jose -- the Dallas Stars did not play as a cohesive team with a singular goal in mind. They were tentative and afraid to make mistakes, lacking the confidence needed to secure a win even when they were playing well. The multiple devastating losses to Anaheim and the near-disastrous loss against Phoenix were perfect examples of how the Stars would fold under pressure.
As that pressure mounted in game after game, the Stars were fighting not only their opponent; they were fighting against themselves and their own nature as a team. There were many times in the final two months of the season where it appeared as Dallas was a team that was just trying to overcome too much to be successful, this was a team that had absolutely zero confidence in their leadership and were seemingly attempting to win all by themselves. This was a team that had no head, and the body was doing its damnedest to flail about blindly and try to hold off the oncoming attack.
It's impossible to quantify, but the Dallas Stars played like a team with zero coaching, a team that was focused on just doing it themselves no matter what might be going on behind the bench. When a team is fighting on two separate fronts like the Stars, there's no surprise that the team ultimately lacked the intensity and confidence needed to secure the points needed to make the postseason.
Watching the NHL playoffs, it's apparent that these teams were just on a completely different level than the Stars this season. While it's true the level of hockey intensity is immediately raised in the postseason, you can't help but think that if the Stars were somehow able to make the playoffs they would have been steamrolled. These teams hit the ice with a fire and intensity we haven't seen in Dallas -- in more than short bursts, at least -- in quite some time.
The speed and intensity of the game is so much different than what we've seen the Stars capable of, and that is exactly what the new head coach needs to bring to this team.
Finding the right coach to fit the system is extremely important. As we saw with Marc Crawford, however, a coach and his system will never be enough. These Dallas Stars players are hungry for a coach that will give them the confidence in themselves they so desperately need; after two seasons of basically taking to the ice alone you can sense that this is a team in dire need of top leadership from the bench, a coach that connects with the team on a level we haven't seen in Dallas in years.
Many will question why the Stars couldn't have found this confidence and intensity themselves, no matter who was coaching. It's just not that simple. When playing hockey you need to know that you can have confidence in your coach to make the right decisions and to pull the right triggers on players to get the most out of their abilities; when that coaching is not there then the result is a team that will struggle to make the playoffs -- no matter who is on the roster.
Who knows exactly which coach embodies all of these traits the most. Perhaps the "perfect coach" isn't even on the market right now. Joe Nieuwendyk is going to have to consider much more than hiring a coach that fits his "system"; finding a coach that is able to connect with the players and give them confidence? Perhaps that's the most important trait of them all.