As we approach the summer, we begin to turn from yet another disappointing season to the hopeful future that could be on its way with a new owner and a potentially bigger budget -- or at least a budget that is approaching normal for the NHL.
We've focused on the pursuit of Brad Richards and the hope that the Stars could actually target some prime free agents this summer. More than anything, we move forward with the hope that after two years Joe Nieuwendyk would finally have the freedom to build the Dallas Stars into the team he envisioned when he was hired in 2009.
Nieuwendyk spoke of a team that evolves from an older style of defensive hockey to one that is much more modern and more successful in today's NHL: an offensive, attacking team with skill at the forward position while still maintaining solid defense -- backed up by stellar goaltending. It's easier said than done and not every team finds the right balance between the three aspects of the game. One thing that is clear, however, is that this is the model for success in the NHL these days and Nieuwendyk is dead set on accomplishing his goal.
Two seasons and a fired coach later, how far has he come? The team has yet to make the playoffs, although the Stars did significantly improve overall from season to season. Are the Stars a better balanced team between attacking and defense? That's a good debate for another day, although I think the general manager would be the first to tell you there's plenty of work to be done -- even if he's encouraged by the early results.
More importantly, have the Dallas Stars changed as a team and as a franchise to be able to continue this transition to a more aggressive, offensive-based team? What moves, exactly, has Nieuwendyk made to set this transition in motion, other than to hire and then fire a coach that was billed as preaching an "aggressive style of hockey"? After the jump we'll examine these questions and take a look at where the transition begins and ends, especially for a team with a limited budget: the NHL Entry Draft.
It's impossible to force a complete philosophy and style change upon a team in a short amount of time and expect immediate success, especially with a limited budget. Without the luxury of being able to handpick players from free agency that perfectly fits the visions that's been set forth, teams are forced to try and make the changes with the old roster in place and hope that the change is more organic and the players embrace the new style. As we've seen lately, this approach doesn't always work.
Just ask Todd Richards and Marc Crawford.
Luckily, Nieuwendyk has been given the time to change this franchise and the benefit of not being hampered by a short chain from management. While he did hire a coach that would jumpstart the current players into the change into a new approach to the game, Nieuwendyk set about making calculated changes to the franchise and to the roster that -- while the impact was certainly not immediate -- were part of the long-term plans of this team.
Trading for Kari Lehtonen gave the Stars a different sort of goaltender, a goalie that was less independent and more consistent (when healthy) and helped Nieuwendyk make the difficult decision to let Marty Turco walk. Lehtonen fit the style of the "new" Stars much better, and his play backed up Nieuwendyk's decisions after his first full season with Dallas.
Lehtonen allowed the Stars to play more aggressive on defense and he gave them the belief that if the Stars did allow chances the other way he has the ability to back his team up more often than not. This was the first major move by Nieuwendyk and set in motion the long-term plans for the Stars.
After letting Modano go and making the transition from Jere Lehtinen as well, the Stars were suddenly a relatively young team. After years of the Stars seeking out veteran playmaking and leadership through free agency, Nieuwendyk made it known that most help will come from within -- and major transactions will be made with the long-term plan in mind.
With Nieuwendyk, it's obvious to see that while winning now is important -- so is winning in the future.
Aside from making several moves on the NHL roster (including a certain Alex Goligoski trade that you may have heard about) Nieuwendyk has set forth with a plan to alter the prospects that the Stars employ in the system. After years and years of big, gritty power forwards and small, skillful defensemen being taken in the draft, Nieuwendyk went in a different direction altogether; one that fit into his plan for the Stars.
2009 NHL Draft:
Scott Glennie - C/RW
Alex Chiasson - RW
Reilly Smith - RW
Tomas Vincour - RW
Curtis McKenzie - LW
2010 NHL Draft:
Jack Campbell - G
Patrik Nemeth - D
Alex Guptill - C/RW
John Klingberg - D
The first thing that stands out to me is how only three of the nine picks come from the Canadian Juniors. While Campbell is playing in the WHL now, he started off in the USDTP and then passed on the chance to play at Michigan. Nieuwendyk has respect for NCAA players and and he tapped into Sweden for help by drafting two underrated defensemen who many consider steals at their respective slots.
What is also apparent is the definitive shift from big, power forwards to smaller and more skillful centers and wingers. With the exception of Tomas Vincour, all the forwards that Nieuwendyk has chosen are small-ish forwards with tremendous offensive upside.
Glennie had a rough patch after being drafted but is coming along nicely and should challenge for a spot on the NHL roster this summer. Chiasson and Reilly Smith are tremendous playmakers with great speed from the wing, something the Stars are sorely lacking both in the system and at the NHL level.
Nieuwendyk also started to move away from the traditional defensemen the Stars have selected (think Vishnevskiy, Larsen, Daley, Niskanen) and have chosen to rebuild these rankings with players that take the best of Goligoski and Fistric and roll them into one. Both Nemeth and Klingberg are big, skilled defensemen with offensive potential -- although it's their size and physical presence that truly sets them apart.
The Stars have also targed players such as Matt Fraser and Brendon Dillon; a very skilled and talented winger and large defenseman with physical as well as offensive acumen.
It's a steady and slow transition that is underway and this summer's draft is going to be key. The Alex Goligoski trade erased the immediate need for a puck-moving defensemen; now the Stars just need a big defenseman to add balance to the blue line.
Enter free agency.
In an ideal world, free agency would be used to supplement the drafts of a team; this is what sets apart the great teams from the not-so-great. Free agency is not meant to be used to build up your team into a roster full of superstars. When free agency can be used solely for the purpose of filling a hole or adding long term firepower -- that is when teams maintain long-term success.
Many fans are clamoring for a big splash in free agency, the need to begin winning immediately is overwhelming at times for a fan. Even with an expanded budget, however, the Stars simply cannot afford to try and rebuild or revamp all at once -- not unless fans want this happening again.
I'm interested in seeing exactly what Joe Nieuwendyk's vision entails for this team, especially if given a budget under which to work. I have a feeling we have only scratched the surface.