When Joe Nieuwendyk was hired in the summer of 2009 he inherited a farm system that was lacking superior top-end talent, with the exception of breakout star Jamie Benn. There were a few bright spots, certainly, but the system as a whole was not very promising and there certainly weren't many prospects that were pounding the doors down to get into the NHL. This created problems when Nieuwendyk was suddenly handcuffed with the financial inability to add any significant talent via free agency, and there weren't many prospects ready to fill the void either.
The big knock on this franchise back in 2009 was the noticeable lack of talent at right wing (specifically right-handers) and on the blue line. With Jamie Benn setting the WHL on fire in May of 2009, the Stars were also getting ready to graduate their one true standout prospect. Without that top-end talent in the system, the Stars' organizational rankings by several websites plummeted and it was tough to argue; there just weren't enough players that were producing enough to warrant anything more.
For the Dallas Stars, however, rebuilding through the system and through draft became increasingly important. For years the Stars relied on free agency and trades to fill out a roster that had several draft day hits, but the days of spending freely and trying to fit payroll under the salary cap were long gone and might never return - no matter who the new owner might be. Nieuwendyk knew that not only would he have to find a way to keep the Stars competitive in the present, but he'd need to focus on getting the Stars' system to a place where this situation never presented itself again.
It's amazing how quickly the complexion of an organization can change when the general manager sets his mind to it.
After three years, it's easy to see Joe Nieuwendyk's vision for how he plans to rebuild this franchise from the foundation up.
Starting in 2009, Nieuwendyk took aim at skilled forwards - specifically wingers - in order to fill a vast void in the organization. The Scott Glennie pick was a bit controversial at the time but Nieuwendyk followed that up with picking a spectrum of wingers, between Alex Chiasson, Tomas Vincour and Reilly Smith.
Vincour has already spent significant time in Dallas and proved himself to be a fiery and physical winger with heaps of offensive potential. While Reilly Smith is a creative, energetic winger the rest of the forwards chosen that year possessed a great combination of size and skill - something the Stars have needed for years. Since that summer, Chiasson and Smith have developed into two of the best young players in the NCAA with Smith likely entering this season as a Hobey Bakeer favorite.
While he didn't pick a defenseman, Nieuwendyk addressed a need and just two years later his focus on draft day is paying off. Vincour will likely make the NHL club out of training camp and Scott Glennie will get serious consideration, coming off a career-best year in the WHL.
Last year the Stars bypassed the chance to add a significant piece of the puzzle to the system, choosing the top goaltender in the draft over a few defensemen that the Stars desperately needed. Nieuwendyk is convinced that Jack Campbell will be a cornerstone for this franchise in the future, and fought back against criticism by drafting two of the more promising defensemen in the draft, John Klingberg and Patrik Nemeth.
Nemeth and Klingberg play two completely different games and Nemeth was described as a "steal" in the second round for the Stars. While Nieuwendyk may not have selected Fowler, it's important to remember his plan also looks ahead to the future. Nemeth is developing into a mature, confident and impressive shutdown defensemen - something the Stars likely needed much more of when looking at the organization as a whole.
This past weekend, Nieuwendyk continued to build upon his original plan and really embraced the "hard to play against" mantra he's set upon this franchise since taking over. Drafting three of the bigger defensemen in the draft , including the two biggest, Nieuwendyk added not just size but skill as well, giving this system a tremendous boost overall.
There's no doubting that this years' draft is perhaps the best so far of Nieuwendyk's short tenure. Nieuwendyk was able to get the giant defenseman this organization needs along with a winger who possesses all the physical tools necessary to be great. When you factor in the value later in the draft as well, including a third-round talent falling to the Stars in the fifth round, then it's tough to deny that perhaps this G.M. has a plan and knows exactly what he's doing with it.
Just three years after taking over in the summer of 2009, Nieuwendyk has given this team a much brighter future than previously experienced. No longer is there a lack of talent and "wow" factor, as there are more than a handful of prospects that any Stars fan should be immensely excited for. When you look at the top six prospects in the system, all drafted by Joe Nieuwendyk, you see a future with promise and excitement rather than depression and disappointment.
It's important to not just look at one draft in a vacuum and to not look at other moves and motivations as well when judging draft strategy. Nieuwendyk has been with Dallas long enough that his vision for the Stars is now taking shape, not just on the ice at the AAC but also within the organization itself. It's a tough balance between the present and future but with the Stars trading for players like Alex Goligoski - who is still young and could be with this franchise a long time - drafting defensemen like Oleksiak, Nemeth and Vance makes complete sense.
While Nieuwendyk must find a way to keep these Stars competitive for the postseason, he's needed just three seasons - and no top five draft picks - to build a future for this franchise we can be excited about. The fact that in two or three years I'm going to have a hard time figuring out how to keep all these players is one that makes me near-giddy and is a problem every team should strive to have.
The complexion of this team and the franchise is slowly changing. For the past five years, the Stars have been a bit undersized and underwhelming physically, and needed to trade for Brad Richards in order to acquire serious top-six talent. The Stars will soon be one of the biggest teams in the Western Conference and in three or four years could possess the largest blueline in all of hockey. Combined with the skill set of players like Philip Larsen, Goligoski and Klingberg and suddenly the dreary outlook for the defense doesn't seem so horrible.
This upcoming season is going to be frustrating at times and Stars fans will likely have to learn a lot of impatience. The addition of a new coach, the lack of funds to be ultra competitive in free agency and the loss of Brad Richards could spell another disappointing season in Big D.
The good news is that while things might not pan out now, the future is looking brighter and brighter. Nieuwendyk has been able to find good talent and value throughout the draft all three years, a fact that will pay off very soon down the like. Getting through the horrid times is always the hardest but when you have a future that's worth looking forward to, dealing with everything else doesn't seem as bad.
This excitement isn't just about potential, either. There has been tangible production and success from the Stars' draft picks from the past three years -- especially in the NCAA. Nemeth and Klingberg have worked themselves up to play in the best hockey leagues in Finland and Sweden and will be getting valuable experience with increased ice time as they mature and develop. Stepping back and looking at the big picture -- including who is currently in Austin and on the Dallas Stars roster -- gives us a better understanding and a heightened level of excitement of just what could be down the line in a few short years.
The Stars are building something here - slowly but surely -- and it could be great, perhaps sooner than later.