TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Joe Nieuwendyk takes part in a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Three years ago when the Dallas Stars hired Joe Nieuwendyk as the new General Manager, the move was made with the plan in mind of not only getting the Stars back into the playoffs but to change the overall direction and focus of the franchise. Tom Hicks, in what would be a last-gasp decision to turn his hockey franchise around, was unhappy with his team after the Stars failed to make the postseason a year after heading to the Conference Finals. Nieuwendyk was hired to shake things up, and that's exactly what he did.
Firing Dave Tippett in favor of Marc Crawford will never go down as the best decision Nieuwendyk has ever made but there are some who feel that the change was necessary, no matter what Tippett's success in Phoenix may be. Nieuwendyk was focused on changing the entire approach of the organization and how a successful team was built and Crawford was to help mold the Stars in this new mindset of aggressive, offense-first hockey.
Unfortunately, and as we all well remember, Nieuwendyk's plan was foiled almost immediately by the financial hardships the team would suddenly be forced to endure. For most of Nieuwendyk's tenure as the GM of the Dallas Stars he's been forced to try and build a winning team with a rock-bottom payroll and little to no support from ownership. His job suddenly morphed from "build a championship team" to "try and keep this team competitive". At the time, no one could have known the sale of the team would take over two years to accomplish and as such, the Stars basically fell into stagnation.
Throughout these past few years, however, Nieuwendyk has slowly been able to mold his eventual vision for this team into reality. The trades for Kari Lehtonen and Alex Goligoski, his ability to keep the young core of this team together through the financial difficulties and his willingness to take a chance on "reclamation projects" all have the Dallas Stars back on the cusp of the NHL postseason, with the division title realistically within reach.
This season has been an incredible ride and for this we must thank Joe Nieuwendyk.
We've been saying all along that Joe Nieuwendyk has a plan and if we'd just be patient enough, things would eventually turn around. Ken Holland has said that a GM deserves a decade to really prove himself while Pierre Gauthier received just two years in Montreal. Nieuwendyk's tenure in Dallas has been rocky at times, with the GM forced to make some very unpopular but necessary decisions in regards to a number of veteran players.
There has been endless frustration with the Stars missing the playoffs for two straight years and there was even some thought that if the Stars failed to make the postseason this summer, then Nieuwendyk's job could be in danger. There is a high bar set in Dallas, especially for this franchise, and Nieuwendyk's handicap throughout it all was a lack of resources and support from above to fully accomplish his appointed task.
For nearly three years, it's safe to say that Joe Nieuwendyk was the highest man on the totem pole. There was no actual team president, there was no owner. Here was a General Manager, attempting to appease numerous banks and lawyers, while still finding a way to keep the Stars competitive. And that's exactly what they have been: competitive in a conference and a division where the teams ahead of the Stars were able to make countless acquisitions and trades in order to strengthen their teams.
Meanwhile, Dallas was forced to go through summers signing players like Jeff Woywitka, Karlis Skrastins, Warren Peters, Brian Sutherby, Brandon Segal and several other players who, at best, were mere role players all meant to keep the Stars steadily moving forward. It's amazing to think that the Stars were able to get to 95 points last season and despite ultimate disappointment, the team did miss the playoffs by just one point.
Throughout it all, Nieuwendyk steadily worked on building this team for the future. Perhaps it was a blessing that the Stars were unable to make many high-priced acquisitions as it forced this franchise to finally change their approach in how to build an NHL team. Nieuwendyk and his scouts looked to the draft, showing they hold those picks at a premium and have used the draft to steadily build a stable of talented, potentially very-good players.
To rebuild through the draft takes a number of years and even then there's no guarantee of success. One needs to look no further than the Edmonton Oilers to see that theory in motion. Yet, for the Stars, we're looking at a future where suddenly there are multiple prospects pushing an NHL roster spot -- something this franchise has not had since 2007, or even earlier.
The Brad Richards situation was unfortunate but an impossible situation inherited by Nieuwendyk in which his hands were completely tied. He should not be faulted for wanting to hang on to Richards for the chance to make the postseason (and that almost happened) and Richards is not at fault for wanting to depart for a team with stable ownership. What Nieuwendyk was able to do in the aftermath of the Richards departure, however, has been nothing short of genius.
Michael Ryder, Sheldon Souray, Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Adam Pardy and Jake Dowell have all been significant contributors for the Dallas Stars this season. While not all players have a long-term future with this team, Nieuwendyk was able to parlay the Richards situation into one where he could bridge the Stars from present to the future, continuing to build around a talented and young core of players.
Ryder, already at 35 goals on the season, has become the most successful free agent signing ever for the Dallas Stars -- at least in this first year. Souray has been solid on the blue line while Fiddler looks to be at least a big part of this team for the foreseeable future. While the Pardy situation has been rocky, he's looked solid as of late and Dowell and Dvorak continue to provide much better depth than the Stars have enjoyed in recent years.
All of this has resulted in a tumultuous but incredibly exciting season for the Stars, where making the postseason comes close to being reality with each passing year. The front office is stronger than ever and the Stars have a coach who looks to be able to grow and learn along with his team and has been able to do more with this group than the two previous coaches.
The Stars have been fortuitous in that those above them in the division have stumbled the second half of the season, opening the door for perhaps the most surprising division-winning team in years. No one thought the Stars had the ability to make the postseason and yet here they are, five games away from actually having a shot at the 3rd seed in the Western Conference.
This team is far from perfect and the lack of a significant payroll is apparent on most nights. Yet Joe Nieuwendyk has been able to rebuild a neglected farm system while building a bridge to the future for this franchise, all the while maintaining his team at a competitive level of play. That's more than many teams in the NHL can say, teams with higher budgets and much more national attention and he's done with almost zero resources at his disposal.
No matter what happens in this final week of the season there can be no doubt that Joe Nieuwendyk has risen from the ashes of the financial hardships of the Dallas Stars to become a GM fans should have trust and faith in. While not every decision has been perfect and there have been some head-scratchers along the way, Nieuwendyk has done what not many people expected could be done: give this franchise a bright future. A very bright future, indeed.