This week, just two days after a devastating loss in Minnesota that kept the Dallas Stars out of the postseason for the third straight year, Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk made a quick decision that not many saw coming and fired head coach Marc Crawford. It was a shock for many, as it was thought that not only could the Stars not afford to pay two coaches for next season but that Nieuwendyk would at least give Crawford another chance -- especially if a new owner allowed him to add more fuel to a very promising roster.
Some felt that the decision was based on the lackluster play of the Stars in the season's biggest game. Facing a win-and-in scenario, the Stars came out flat against an underwhelming Minnesota Wild team and watched their season end in embarrassing fashion. It was a painful way to finish off a frustrating season but Nieuwendyk states that it wasn't that final game that was the basis for the coaching change, it was how the Stars played in every other big game this season.
"I don't think we missed the playoffs because of one game," said Nieuwendyk. "We had dips that we couldn’t seem to get out of at different times during the second half of the season that ultimately cost us. We needed to beat the teams we had to in order to get to the playoffs. It wasn’t going to be a situation as we saw in the last month-and-a-half of the season where we were going to be able to back into the playoffs, even though we had a lead in the division at one point.
"Teams were charging and teams were playing hard and they were earning their way into it. We faced adversity with injuries, but we weren’t able to get the job done."
The Dallas Stars had a chance, but couldn't get the job done. It was the theme for the entire season. Time for a new coach.
The Dallas Stars should never have been in the position of having to win just one final game to make the playoffs. The Stars, holding a 12 point lead in January in the Pacific Division, squandered chances against Anaheim, Nashville, Los Angeles and Phoenix in the final month of the season. Get points in any of those games and the Stars make the playoffs; instead, the Stars were unable to meet the intensity and energy of their opponents and looked like a team that didn't deserve the postseason anyway. It's still amazing they even had a chance in the end.
Joe Nieuwendyk made a proactive, bold decision in firing Marc Crawford. He says this was something that was on his mind throughout the season and he wasted no time in making the move. Nieuwendyk knows that the Stars are on the cusp of taking their game to the next level, needing just a few pieces on the roster to really solidify a potent lineup. He also knows that Crawford was not going to be the coach to take them there.
There are many who still are in shock that a team that finished with 95 points and barely missed the postseason would fire their coach. Yet Nieuwendyk was not going to wait around and watch the Stars fail to live up to their potential a third season in a row. Like any other decision he's made in two years as the Stars' general manager, Nieuwendyk isn't going to wait until it's absolutely imperative a decision has to be made and when the team is already in trouble.
Nieuwendyk took the job as the general manager with the tough task of transforming the Stars into the team that fits his vision. At the same time, he had to find a way to move on from several aging veterans while making the Stars a younger and more talented team.
He anticipated the departure of Marty Turco and while everyone was keeping an eye potential free agents for the upcoming summer, Nieuwendyk traded away the team's top prospect (who has continued to flounder in the minors) for the low risk/high reward goaltender that is Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen appeared in 69 games for the Stars, winning more games by a Dallas goaltender since 2006 and finishing with better overall stats since Marty Turco that same season.
Nieuwendyk had to say goodbye to several Stars veterans, fan favorites that no one wanted to leave. His decision to let Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano leave was extremely unpopular and created a backlash from long-time fans. Yet Nieuwendyk knew that if the Stars were going to improve with younger talent, he needed to make room for players like Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell. With the limited finances of the Stars, not signing Modano allowed the team to pursue Andrew Raycroft and Adam Burish.
This summer's crop of free agent defensemen is underwhelming at best, and Nieuwendyk knew that if the Stars were going to contend for the postseason he needed immediate help on the blue line. If he could add talent on defense that would not only help the team in the short term, but long term as well, then he could potentially make a move that would set the Stars up handsomely for the future.
Unknown to many at the time, Joe Nieuwendyk went after Alex Goligoski. The Stars had been scouting the defensemen for months and knew that with injuries devastating the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was the perfect time to make the move. He offered up another fan favorite in James Neal, a promising forward that had potentially reached his ceiling with the Stars.
In 23 games, Goligoski had 5 goals and 15 points for the Stars and showed his incredible potential to be a top defenseman for years to come.
Joe Nieuwendyk is not one to sit around and wait until the time has passed for the right decision to be made. In just two seasons, he's shown a knack for knowing that while a decision that may be unpopular at the time -- it's the right one to make for the future.
Marty Turco has been reduced to a backup goaltender for the Blackhawks, appearing in just 29 games this season with a 3.02 goals-against average and the worst save percentage of his career (.897).
Mike Modano was far from the caliber of player we were used to and after an injury-shortened season opened up the playoffs as a healthy scratch for the Detroit Red Wings.
James Neal has just one goal in 21 games for the Penguins, and has just two goals in his past 31 games overall.
Ivan Vishnevskiy, once touted as the "next Sergei Zubov", spent this past season with the Rockford Icehogs, finishing with just 15 points in 46 games.
There's a thought that perhaps Joe Nieuwendyk was quick to fire Marc Crawford not just because of how the season ended but because he likely realized he had made a mistake with the hire in the first place. Crawford came as a strong recommendation by Nieuwendyk's mentor and at the time seemed to be the perfect coach to help the Stars transition to a new style of hockey that fit Nieuwendyk's vision.
Instead, Crawford never resembled the fiery coach that was so successful in Colorado and Vancouver and stepped on one too many toes around Dallas while creating zero confidence in the players on his team. It must have been painful for Nieuwendyk to see how the Stars responded in the biggest games of the season, how they appeared to have no motivation or direction for nearly a month while tumbling down the Western Conference standings.
Nieuwendyk was quick to act in firing Crawford but he'll take his time in finding a new coach. He'll never admit it, but perhaps hiring Crawford so fast after firing Tippett was his biggest mistake as the GM of the Stars and Nieuwendyk is not the type to make the same mistake twice. This coaching search will lead to the biggest decision of his career, as this next coach will be expected to take a team with promise and turn them into a Stanley Cup contender. It's a lot of pressure, exacerbated by the unknown financial status of the Stars this summer.
For now, Nieuwendyk has guided the Stars in the right direction. He has a very strong core group of players that's build around and he's found a way to hold on to them even with limited resources financially. He's found a way to add several very key pieces (Goligoski, Lehtonen, Burish) without having to mortgage the future of the team and if the Stars could just get an owner willing to spend some money, he has room under the cap to make some very big moves.
His decisions might not have been popular but it's tough to deny that Joe Nieuwendyk's moves as general manager have -- for the most part -- always worked out in the end.