It's safe to say that at this point in the season we understand just what sort of challenges truly lay at the feet of Glen Gulutzan. Hired after a thorough coaching search by Joe Nieuwendyk, where it is likely he was the target all along, Gulutzan was asked to help usher the Dallas Stars into a new beginning. With the Stars putting together a hard-working, blue collar roster -- one that is perhaps the least skilled we've seen in Dallas since 1994 -- Gulutzan was challenged to lead this team to the playoffs despite a mountain of adversity standing in his way.
Three years of stagnation under financial crises and being an afterthought of the banks who owned the team have led the Stars down a path many fans never could have imagined this team would take. The Stars have been one of the premiere franchises in the NHL since coming to Dallas in 1993, one of the most successful teams of that time. The consistent success has bred a level of expectations among Stars fans that is impossible to live up to, especially considering the troubles the franchise has had since Tom Hicks' empire began to crumble.
Glen Gulutzan walked into a situation where failure was not an option for most of the fans of this franchise, yet was challenged to lead a basement-payroll team to the playoffs. We discussed how the new players on this team should provide better balance -- and they have -- yet as the season has progressed the lack of overall talent and depth has caught up to the Stars, and Gulutzan has been fighting to keep his team's head above water.
Through it all, historically high expectations have led to an increasing sense of frustration among the fanbase, with Gulutzan tasked to lead the Dallas Stars through their most challenging season yet -- and be successful. Despite the struggles of this season, fans should feel encouraged by Gulutzan's fortitude, attitude and willingness to improve, as he continues to to grow with a team still being built.
Joe Nieuwendyk has been the General Manager for this team since the start of the financial collapse of the franchise and has yet to have the tools necessary to really be able to build a successful team. Attempting to maintain the Stars competitive during that time, no one could have foreseen how dire the situation would become or how long it would take for the sale of the team to be completed. Hindsight it always clearer, but it's obvious the Stars needed to start this process much sooner -- but we can hardly blame a team for fighting for the playoffs after being so successful for so long.
Nieuwendyk began to focus on rebuilding the farm system yet the team itself has seen little vertical improvement, with the exception of the emergence of Jamie Benn and the addition of Alex Goligoski. He's done the best he could with limited resources, yet the end result is a team that -- three years later -- is fighting to maintain a competitive balance with teams with higher payrolls and who overall are more talented as well.
It's the inevitable peaks and valleys of a sports franchise and currently the Stars are deep in their own valley, with the path for the way out becoming more and more clear. Still, these three years of mediocrity has taken a toll on a fanbase that is still not used to the reality that hits every sports team at some point.
Three years ago, the writing was on the wall. I wrote this in the fall of 2009:
What is needed is for the Stars to win, yet this is a team that is in desperate need of an infusion of outside talent. The Stars are currently just under $10 million below the salary cap, yet Joe Nieuwendyk is forced to abide by a in-house budget. The Stars did not have the ability to sign a big-name free agent over the summer, nor does it appear they have the finances to make a big trade this season either.
The Dallas Stars are going to be forced to ride with the team they have, and there's a chance it won't be good enough. The defense is too shaky and despite having good depth at forward, the Stars are in need of a skilled right-handed shot. The quick answer to all this is just for the Stars to win, and the fans will return. Yet the team is saddled by a budget and is fighting inconsistency.
In the meantime, the fan of the Dallas Stars is left to reside in a place they have never been before. They have a team that has struggled for over a year now, without a sign that things will improve dramatically anytime soon. They are fans of a team that looks close to unable to keep the talented players they currently have, as well as unable make the team more competitive through acquisitions. They find themselves forced to pay premium ticket prices for weekend games, yet the arena still has plenty of empty seats on the nights when tickets are cheap. Most discouragingly, the fans find they have rarely had much to cheer for while watching their team at home.
I wish I had been blatantly wrong, but we had no idea I'd be as right as I was. As we all know, the financial issues of the team spiraled further downward until the Stars became one of the lowest-spending teams in the NHL with the cheapest defensive unit. The ownership woes led to the departure of Brad Richards and instead of being able to sign a promising young defenseman in free agency, the Stars were forced to trade James Neal.
All of that culminated in a summer where the Stars signed six players, yet had to make an early-season trade just to get above the cap floor. With a new coach in town, the hope was that the change in role players would lead to a fresh start of sorts for this team and that perhaps Glen Gulutzan could work some magic and turn an undermanned team into a contender through sheer force of incredible coaching.
As we've seen, however, Gulutzan did not come to Dallas with all of the right answers. As a young and relatively inexperienced coach, Gulutzan was hired because of his ability to connect with the players and turn things around from the cold, distant relationship the locker room had with Marc Crawford. As the season has progressed, however, the lack of talent on this team -- along with some key injuries -- has affected the overall confidence of the Stars along with the inability to consistently play as passionately as the Stars need in order to win most nights.
This has been a tough season for the team and it's fans, seeing a blue collar roster struggle every other game while still fighting for the postseason dream. The front office continues to point at the playoffs as the target for this season, while with each loss that dream fades further and further from reality. There's no telling what could happen in the final few months of the season and the Stars could certainly make a good run; the reality is, however, that this is still a team in transition with a few years left before becoming the true contenders we all want them to be.
As this team grows together as it is built, the Stars have a coach to grow along with them. The Glen Gulutzan we see now behind the bench is far from the coach that sent his team on the ice for that opening game against Chicago way back in October. The harsh realities of the vast differences between AHL and NHL coaching came crashing down on him and with the team struggling through injury and inconsistency, there was doubt whether he was the right coach for this job.
What's been so encouraging, however, is how Gulutzan and his coaching staff have adjusted as the season has progressed. A coach that stood up for his team and only focused on the positives after a loss now calls out his players and let's it be known he won't stand for sub-par compete levels in any game. He's adjusted playing time based on performances and shaken up the lines in an effort to spark offense. More importantly, he hasn't hesitated to park players on the bench during games if they start costing their team with poor play.
In the ECHL and AHL, in game strategies weren't nearly as important as they are in the NHL. We've seen how the Stars have struggled with maintaining balance across all four lines this season, which exposed certain players' weaknesses. Recently, however, the Stars have adjusted across the board and now play each line to their strengths. Results have been mixed, however, as the same issues that have plagued the team all season continue to cost them at inopportune times during games.
Glen Gulutzan was never a "quick fix", a coach that could come to Dallas and set the NHL on fire by dragging his team to the postseason. What he is, however, is a coach that is perfectly suited to establish himself as the ultimate leader on a team that is still under construction -- to learn the intricacies of an extremely tough job while the Stars forge their own identity on the ice.
There's no guarantee that a more experienced coach would have seen different results this season, as it's become increasingly clear that the disparity in talent between the Stars and others in the West would have caught up with them eventually. The pressure would certainly have been greater, and expectations would certainly have been higher.
This season is far from lost and there are still many games left to play. Glen Gulutzan, rookie head coach for an undermanned NHL team, still has his team withing fighting distance of the postseason, something no one thought possible when the season began. While missing the playoffs would be disappointing, we must always remember what the reasonable expectations for this season were and realize that falling short of the playoffs does not amount to the ultimate failure.
Instead, we must remember that this is about the future -- and it has been from the start. Gultuzan is leading the charge through perhaps the most frustrating season for the Stars since coming to Dallas and while we'd all love to make the playoffs, we also want this team to continue to improve upon a solid core of players and turn into the contenders we know they can become. Gulutzan is the perfect coach to grow with this team and to lead the Dallas Stars on that long path out of the valley.