Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk Getting Big Rewards Out Of Seemingly Small Moves


A series of signings over the last few years, made without much fanfare, are helping expedite Dallas' return to success

I'm sure you're wondering what this clip from the movie Zombieland has to do with the current state of affairs for the Dallas Stars.

Well, two things.

For starters, after Dallas' incredibly frustrating start to the season, the team seems to finally have found it's groove, riding high with four wins in their last five, albeit for a 7-4 loss against Calgary on Wednesday night. I don't know about you, but this recent stretch of improved play is leaving me feeling as relieved as Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock looked after demolishing that poor souvenir shop.

Secondly, and most importantly, this video serves as a reminder to take time and appreciate the little things. While at first glance there might not appear to be any similarities between Woody Harrelson lodging an axe into the neck of a wooden cowboy mannequin and the current state of affairs of the Dallas Stars, there is a connection here.

Between the start of the 2012 offseason last summer and now, there has been plenty of discussion about the signings of Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, the trading of Steve Ott for Derek Roy, the recent call-up of top prospect Jamie Oleksiak, and other bold decisions by Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk to strengthen both the present and the future of the team.

While Nieuwendyk's track record for big moves is a balance between resounding victories (Kari Lehtonen trade, Jagr signing) and much-discussed controversies (Alex Goligoski - James Neal swap, not moving Brad Richards at the trade deadline), his track record when it comes to smaller, seemingly insignificant moves is nothing short of impressive.

When Nieuwendyk took over as GM in May of 2009 he not only inherited a cash-strapped team without an owner, but also one that was looking upwards at a long, steep, winding path of a franchise rebuild. Long gone were the days when the Stars could open up former owner Tom Hicks' wallet and throw money at each year's crop of free agents, or trade picks and prospects for players with already existing expensive contracts.

Even worse, years of trying to stay competitive left the team's prospect cupboard quite bare, with many picks and youngsters exchanged for veteran help. The picks that remained were often late in their rounds, and the youngsters that were left were often not of the highest pedigree, leaving few resources with which to start a rebuild around.

No, GM Joe had to get creative. But now, four years later, it's safe to say that he's doing a pretty darn good job so far playing the cards from the bad hand that he was dealt.

Brenden Dillon, Jordie Benn, Ryan Garbutt, Cristopher Nilstorp, Antoine Roussel and Matt Fraser are all names that Stars fans are familiar with nowadays, but they all share three major commonalities: they all went undrafted at the NHL level; before they were signed hardly anyone knew who they were; yet now they all have the chance to play specific, and in some cases very important, roles with the organization as it moves forward.

Dillon's development into an NHL-caliber defenceman seems to be progressing quicker and quicker every week. Since the season began the big 22 year-old vaulted from the bottom defensive pair onto the team's top even strength pairing, alongside Stephane Robidas, and hasn't looked out of place. He's averaging 18:50 of ice time per game and has proven himself capable of handling north of 20:00. He is currently showing that he has the size, skill and mental fortitude to potentially become a bonafide top four defenceman at the NHL level, making all 30 NHL teams look foolish for passing over him in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

According to this recent article by Mark Stepneski, many teams later came calling on Dillon while he was tearing it up in his overage year with the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds, but it was Nieuwendyk and the Stars that discovered him first.

"The Stars were the first team I met with," Dillon said. "I talked with Les Jackson, Shane Churla . We had really good talks and then I had a chance to meet with Joe Nieuwendyk. It was just an unbelievable organization."

When Jordie Benn first joined the organization, it seemed like it was a move that was made moreso because of the name on the back of the jersey than by the on-ice performances of the player wearing it. Before the 2010-2011 season began Jordie's younger brother Jamie was just beginning to really show the Stars what he was capable of. While Jordie's play in the BCHL, ECHL and CHL wasn't outstanding, it was respectable enough that Nieuwendyk felt it deserved a shot at the AHL level with the Texas Stars, and could double as an act of good faith towards Jamie.

However, Jordie has shown that he belongs for reasons other than just his family ties. He's been one of Texas' top defencemen the past two years, and despite some hiccups has looked good logging a lot of minutes in a combined 11 games for Dallas. Although he's playing in the AHL right now, the 25 year-old could very well find himself playing regularly in the NHL both later this season and going forward, adding another piece that Nieuwendyk can build his team around.

Garbutt and Roussel were both unknown AHLers when they were signed, never having been expected to make the jump to hockey's highest level, yet here they are in Dallas. They are 4th line players right now, and likely won't ever be more than 3rd or 4th line players in the NHL, but they have the speed and tenacity to bring energy to a lineup and keep the opposition on their toes, and have both shown this season already that they have the ability to chip in with the odd goal here or there. Those types of players can still be important contributors to successful teams, which makes it all the more admirable that they were both added for almost nothing from obscure AHL depths.

Fraser only has one Stars game to his credit, but has been extremely impressive the past two seasons for Texas. His whopping 59 goals in that time are the highest combined total in the AHL, and have been enough to signal that he has a bright enough future to cement himself as one of the team's top prospects. At 22 years of age Fraser, like Dillon, is undoubtedly a player that NHL teams regret passing up on at the draft.

Nilstorp is another name in a long list of late-blooming goaltenders throughout the league. After years playing professionally in Sweden he made the jump to North America this year and has been battling with Richard Bachman for the role of backup behind Lehtonen. While his time here is still relatively young, Nilstorp has shown flashes of brilliance at both the NHL and AHL levels, and if his contract is extended by Dallas there is a chance that Niewendyk could have pulled an NHL-quality goalie out of seemingly thin air.

Of course, all of these players are still relatively new to the Stars organization, and, with the exception of Dillon, none of them have yet to have a huge impact on the team. But as said earlier in the post, the team is still rebuilding, and that means that evaluations have to be made based off of potential rather than results. While he may not have had a huge budget or the best tools, Nieuwendyk still seems to have found a way to put a lot of fitting pieces in the right parts of the foundation.

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