Today is Joe Nieuwendyk's first official day as General Manager, and while it's easy to say he has inherited a team that already in pretty good condition, he still has some serious decisions to make fairly quickly. Free agency starts in less than a month and the NHL draft is three weeks away. The good news is that the guys he took over for have already put together a solid plan moving forward, but Neiuwendyk still has a tough job to do in a very short amount of time.
In no particular order of importance, here are the big points Neiuwendyk will be focusing on over the next few weeks:
The future of Dallas Stars free agents (and long time fan favorites) Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov:
Both of these long time Dallas Stars are scheduled to become free agents on July 1st, and both have struggled with injuries the past few years (Zubov much more so than Lehtinen). It's obvious at this point that if the Stars do decide they want either or both of these players to return next season, it will be at a significantly lower contract than what they have had in the past. Lehtinen has already stated that he is eager to return next season for the Stars, so one has to assume he would be willing to take a pay cut. Zubov is another matter entirely, especially since it's uncertain just how healthy is at this point. Nieuwndyk did have this to say yesterday:
"I can't wait to talk to Zubie. I heard he's skating and I heard he wants to play," said Nieuwendyk, who called Zubov "still one of the elite players in the league."
The plan heading into free agency:
While the Stars have a fairly solid roster (when fully healthy), there's no doubt that some significant upgrades could be made, especially through free agency. If Zubov does not return next season, the Stars will be desperate for another puck-moving, number one level defenseman. Of course, all eyes immediately turn to Jay Bouwmeester. However, Nieuwendyk will not have the flexibility to make a hard charge in free agency since Tom Hicks has stated several times this offseason that the Stars will not spend anywhere near the salary cap next season.
Yet Nieuwendyk was very adamant yesterday that he would not be aggressive in free agency, even if he had the ability to.
"I don't see it as a way of building," Nieuwendyk said. "What normally happens is you end up overspending on Day 1. And I think a lot of teams have fallen into that over the years. With all due respect, our team was one of them. You have to be careful."
Preparing for the draft:
We are now just a bit over three weeks from the NHL draft, and the Stars have their first top ten pick since 1996. There will be a lot of pressure on Nieuwendyk to make a great draft pick right away, especially since the last time the team was in the top ten they drafted the underwhelming Richard Jackman. While the Stars have a small group of very promising prospects, making the right choice in the draft could go a long way in the first step in securing the key player in the Dallas Stars future.
Evaluating the coaching staff:
As soon as it was announced the Nieuwendyk was to be named the new General Manager, the immediate reaction on message boards, Twitter and even in my inbox was the question of Dave Tippett's job security and whether Guy Carbonneau would be taking over. Don't expect anything near that drastic to happen. This organization has historically shown a steadfast loyalty to its coaches over the years, and Les Jackson has shown a lot of faith in him while he was the G.M. Most importantly, Tippett embodies the same work ethic and vision for his team that Neiuwendyk possesses himself. While we all get frustrated with the lack of power play creativity (which is supposedly Tippett's strong suit), there's no doubt that he commands respect from his team, is willing to hold his veterans to the highest of standard and demands 130% effort every game from every player.
"I have a lot of respect for Dave," Nieuwendyk said. "His accomplishments speak for themselves. I don't want to put the cart before the horse here. I've got to come in and learn a lot of what's going on here and the coaching aspect is included here."
The goaltending situation:
Marty Turco is 34 years old and is heading into the final year of his contract. While he exorcised his playoff demons in 2007-08, he was far from perfect last season during a time when the team needed him to be at his very best. The Stars will have a tough choice to make heading forward, but most likely will reserve making a decision until at least midway through next season if not after. There is no way the Stars should even consider extending Turco without first seeing how he responds after the worst season of his career.
One big factor in the decision making process with Turco will be in just how successful the Stars are in signing Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. The hiring of Neiuwendyk as the G.M. is thought of as a big step towards making Gustavsson choose Dallas, but in reality the pieces are already perfectly in place for the Stars to make the strongest bid possible. Les Jackson has a great reputation for his work with young players and his ability to woo them to Dallas, as evidenced by the signing of Fabian Brunnstrom last summer, who is coincidentally good friends with Gustavsson. Plus, Jackson and Dallas Stars Swedish scout Johan Garpenlov have already spent a lot of time in Sweden and have forged a good relationship with the popular goaltender. While many still see Toronto as the front runners for signing Gustavsson, it's tough to say that the Stars aren't that far behind in the race.
Even with the Gustavsson situation ongoing, the Stars are still in desperate need of acquiring a reliable backup to Marty Turco for next season. Especially if Gustavsson signs elsewhere. There's no doubt that the coaches and team have lost all confidence in Tobias Stephan, and while Matt Climie was impressive in his short time with the Stars at the end of the season, he still needs time in the AHL to develop. The Stars will have a good contest next season between Climie and Richard Bachman to see who might be "the next big Dallas Stars backup who is pretty damn good and then starts elsewhere", but there is also the chance that either of those two will have the opportunity to be the starter in 2010-11if Turco is not re-signed.\
These aren't all the things Nieuwendyk must make decisions on in the couple of months, but they are the most important. Fortunately, he has an incredible infrastructure already built to assist him in his duties. And still having Les Jackson with the team is quite possibly the most important factor in just how well Neiuwendyk does in his first year on the job.