On Wednesday afternoon, the Dallas Stars officially closed the book on the 2011-12 season as the players arrived in Frisco to clean out their lockers and take part in exit physicals. It's always a somber day for teams that aren't in the postseason and the players showed that frustration as well, letting it be known just how much the way this season ended truly hurt.
It's the final chance for the media to talk to the players as well, and we'll have video of most of those interviews up later today. It was also a chance for Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk to talk at length to the media, perhaps the longest press conference he's given since last summer. While the players made their frustrations known, Nieuwendyk made it clear that he's excited about the future of this team -- a sentiment that has been echoed a few times around these parts as well.
More than anything, Nieuwendyk made it known that this summer will be much different than the ones we've experienced the past few years as the Stars finally have an owner -- one who will completely change the approach this team takes this summer.
"This summer is different than many summers because since day one that Tom Gaglardi took over you could feel that a cloud moved away from our organization," said Nieuwendyk. "He's passionate about winning, he cares about our group and we sensed that from the day he took over. You can feel it in our community, you can feel it across all the different radio stations. There was a different buzz about our team and that is exciting, not only for the last couple months but looking ahead to next season and this summer."
Nieuwendyk would later expand on this:
"We have stability and we have someone that is not just committed to turning this business around but to also turning this team around. He's willing to provide the resources needed to do that. We have to be smart with a lot of the uncertainties we talked about but we're going to be looking at all options: free agency, trades...you name it, we're going to look at it."
More from Nieuwendyk after the jump, as well as a full transcript of his lengthy press conference.
Nieuwendyk would address several key issues that are on everyone's mind and I wanted to point out a few choice quotes.
One thing that everyone is focused on is just how much money the Stars will have to be active in going after a big-name player in free agency, and Nieuwendyk said that while the ownership is willing to spend -- they're going to have to go about it smartly. The Stars have a lot of business issues to address as well, which will directly affect payroll, but the Stars also have to keep in mind upcoming CBA negotiations as well.
"There's a number of things that come into play," said Nieuwendyk. "We don't know what the landscape is going to look like come September 15, but what I will say is that we are well positioned as any team moving forward. We can't say for sure what the cap will be or what some of the dynamics that will be in play, but we are open for business and will be able to talk to a lot of teams about trades, free agency when it comes to July, and ways of making our team better."
Nieuwendyk would hint several times that the Stars are looking into all possibilities and it certainly seems as though the Stars are looking at possibility being very involved in the trade market as well. He stated that in the past teams weren't all that willing to work with the Stars yet now, with the new owner, those avenues are more open to exploration.
Jim Lites, talking to the media separately, suggested the Stars could be in position to take advantage of a team that is hard against the cap with a big contract -- something the Stars did in the Brad Richards trade.
"And, almost as important now, I think, is our opportunity to participate in is what I call the ‘we want to make a change but we've got no flexibility market,' which is how this franchise acquired Brad Richards. A contract was stifling a team that overspent on a player, and it helps you get better. I think we're there now. I think that is the biggest difference."
Lites would also make it known that the Stars have the flexibility to actually spend in free agency, something that we've been hungry for the last few years but have never had the chance to actually enjoy.
"The good news is we have flexibility. You need cap room and flexibility to be successful, if you don't have you can't," said Lites. "The difference between this year and last year there now is a guy there that you can call and say we have an opportunity to sign this player to this contract and he can make a difference for us for ten years. That opportunity didn't exist before. That's in the unrestricted free agent market."
So, the Stars are going to have the flexibility to spend but it's unclear just what the planned payroll is going to be. I think we can all agree that we don't have to worry about "$46 million" anymore. I'm sick of typing that number, that's for certain.
Nieuwendyk would also address questions about the core group of players, especially the veterans that have been around the past four years during this playoff drought. While everyone is thinking about Ribeiro, Morrow, Robidas and others -- Nieuwendyk took that chance to pour praise on Eriksson, Benn and the other young players on the team. It was an interesting way to take that question and it likely shows that no veteran is necessarily safe this summer.
He would address the veterans, however, saying this:
"We've had a lot of guys here -- the guys you were talking about -- who have tremendous character and a tremendous amount of pride," said Nieuwendyk. "They're not happy either about not making the playoffs four years in a row. They've all been here and been a part of that. We're going to talk to them about that and see what we can do to get better."
That's a very ambiguous answer. This is going to be the most interesting aspect of the summer and where much of the drama will lie.
The following is the full transcript of the press conference. I did this myself, so any mistakes are mine and any omissions were made by mistake. Take this as an "unofficial transcript", if you will.
Joe Nieuwendyk Press Conference, 4/11:
It's a tough feeling. You have to face the music. It's difficult because it's a tough league, it's a tough conference and it's not easy to achieve your goals. We're very determined to push forward to achieve our goals. What gets lost out of the push that we've had the past few months is that there have been some good things as well and even though you don't make the playoffs...sometimes those get lost.
I'm proud of how our team competing hard. I'm proud of how they came together as a team. That's always the goal, early on, is for a group of guys to come together and play together and we had a lot of good efforts from our group this year. The reality is it wasn't good enough. We have to push forward and we have to continue to get better.
This summer is different than many summers because since day one that Tom Gaglardi took over you could feel that a cloud moved away from our organization. He's passionate about winning, he cares about our group and we sensed that from the day he took over. You can feel it in our community, you can feel it across all the different radio stations. There was a different buzz about our team and that is exciting, not only for the last couple months but looking ahead to next season and this summer.
It's a different dynamic in play this summer, having that stability, having that backing. I feel like we're a player again. Maybe before, not that we're using it as an excuse, the playing field wasn't really level. On a number of fronts. I feel like teams felt there wasn't really a need to talk to the Stars because of our situation. That's changed now.
I'm excited. You get over this pain of not making the playoffs and you move forward. We're still in the process of evaluating our players, but at some point it's going to shift into getting excited again at the prospects ahead. Like I said, I think there's some things to get excited about this year. We had some young players make big steps forward in their careers. We had a goalie who was written off from other teams and other organizations that has taken steps to becoming an elite goaltender once again. We have a terrific young coach who is only going to get better with the experiences that he's gone through. I'm really excited about moving forward.
On potential payroll for next season:
I don't think those things have been determined yet. Again, Tom and the business side have come in and they're evaluating things on their side of the door just like we are on our side of the door. When they have better answers to some of their questions we'll combine that with the answers to some of ours, so those budgetary questions should move forward and be in place before free agency.
Again, we are going to trend this thing upward and Tom wants to have a good team. He understands what needs to be done. At the same token, there's things that need to be done on the business side as well.
On the possibilities of getting a big player in trade or free agency:
"There's a number of things that come into play. We don't know what the landscape is going to look like come September 15, but what I will say is that we are well positioned as any team moving forward. We can't say for sure what the cap will be or what some of the dynamics that will be in play, but we are open for business and will be able to talk to a lot of teams about trades, free agency when it comes to July, and ways of making our team better."
On what could change after September 15 when the new CBA would (supposedly) go into effect, and what penalties could be imposed if the cap goes down:
The league revenues have gone up so the cap will go up under this current system. There are no guarantees when this thing does get resolved. We have to be smart about that and we have to take that into account.
On Glen Gulutzan's job his first season:
I think he did a tremendous job for us. He'll be the first to admit that he learned a lot this year. We didn't hire Glen Gulutzan for a one-year sample. We hired him knowing that he is going to be a long-term coach in the NHL. He's a bright young coach and he's going to be prepared. He experienced a lot here in his first year. I think that he's going to grow as a coach and I think he did a great job.
I think that Willie Desjardins, in his second year in the league, has done a tremendous job helping him out. Jerrard and [Gulutzan] have been together for a number of years and they communicate so well together on a number of levels. There are certainly areas of our team play that will be focused on. Everyone will point to the power play and that's going to be a big focal point. We'll look at a number of areas but the coaching staff will communicate well.
On the core group of veteran players:
We're going to do a hard evaluation on all those players, there's no question about it. Like I said before, I'm very pleased about the future of our young players -- who were our best players. I thought that Loui Eriksson made tremendous strides this year. I've felt in the past couple of seasons that maybe he got tired at the end of the season, but he maintained his weight and I thought he took on a real leadership position as well. He wanted to make a difference.
Jamie Benn is getting better. He's 22 years old and sometimes we want to push him to do things that 22 year olds shouldn't, but I'm really pleased with him. We've had a lot of guys here -- the guys you were talking about -- who have tremendous character and a tremendous amount of pride. They're not happy either about not making the playoffs four years in a row. They've all been here and been a part of that. We're going to talk to them about that and see what we can do to get better.
On the prospects and what it's like seeing these guys finally in Austin:
It's really encouraging. Those of you that are knowledgeable about our system have been talking a lot about our Austin situation. Now that the players we have that are coming in are turning pro...I was just there last night watching them and it brings a smile to your face to see Alex Chiassion, the big body, flying down down the wing and scoring his first pro goal.
Jack Campbell, working his butt off backstopping them to victories the way he has early in his pro career. Austin Smith, up for the Hobey Baker this year. Scott Glennie has made some big strides. We have big Patrik Nemeth flying over to be a big bodied Swedish defenseman down there for us. It goes on and on. Brenden Dillon, who played the other night, it was the first time for Stars fans to really see him.
Who would have thought, a year ago, that Ryan Garbutt would be a player we'd be talking about in our lineup. These things are critical. Other teams have that happen, where young players come up and stick and we're no different. It's exciting to have these young guys come in and do what they did for us. Philip Larsen is another guy that had a tremendous year for us. The bar will get raised with him.
Young players vs. veterans -- will holes be left open on the roster in case they're ready?
Ideally, I really believe that the longer you can let them marinate in the AHL -- which is a really good league -- the better player you're going to have longer term for our club here. You look at a kid like Matt Fraser who had a really good year, scored 35-plus goals, those are kids that we'll look at in the evaluation process.
Ideally you'd like to get them games, as much as you can, much like we did with Tomas Vincour. I think two years ago, Vincour looked a lot like Alex Chiasson to me -- he's just feeling his way, but now Tomas Vincour has made big strides in his progress. There's a process and I think that's an area we'll address.
Specific type of player to target this summer?
I have my list, I have areas that are really important to me. Some of them are intangible. I think our power play is going to be a big focal point. We have to get that better. I think that if we had even an "average" power play then we'd probably be in a better position than we are today. I think, moving forward, we need a player that has a bigger impact in our top setting. That will be a focal point.
The challenge is that centers are a rare commodity in this league and we're going to do our best to find someone to help improve that position.
Jamie Benn as a center moving forward?
I think that Jamie is so talented, he could probably run a power play at some point. He could play left wing, right wing, center...we've asked him to do a lot. I think that time will tell what position he fits best in, but there's no doubt that will happen in a Dallas Stars uniform.
I think Jamie's versatile enough so that if we do need to use him at center, which have had to do, he'll be fine. I think we'll be very comfortable moving him back to the wing as well.
Draft strategy with the 13th pick:
It's a good pick. It's a little early to tell. We have a meeting with our amateur scouts soon and I'll get a better idea of where we are then. I know it's a good draft, much like last season. We'll be looking at all options.
On having an owner this summer and how it changes the approach of the team:
It changes it tremendously. We are a player again. We're a dance partner for some teams. We have stability and we have someone that is not just committed to turning this business around but to also turning this team around. He's willing to provide the resources needed to do that. We have to be smart with a lot of the uncertainties we talked about but we're going to be looking at all options: free agency, trades...you name it, we're going to look at it.
On the power play:
I know that is going to be Coach Gulutzan's number one priority this summer. There is a lot of discussion about Jamie Benn not being out there as much as the other guys. There was a time there when Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson were really carrying this team. It didn't translate to any of our guys and we're going to have to dig in and figure out why.
On the importance of World Championship experience:
I think it's good for players like Kari Lehtonen to play in those types of games, get that experience. It is in Helsinki, Finland, so I'm in favor of it. I think it's a good experience for them.
I think they're good experiences. In the case of some of these guys they want to make an impression and get some international experience. I think it's good for someone like Kari to be under the microscope and to get that experience and see what he can do.
I look back at when we acquired him. I think we got him at the right time when other teams weren't willing to take the chance. It's been good for both of us. I think in year one he wanted to prove to everyone that his health was not a factor anymore. I think in year two he showed that but he also wanted to prove to everyone that he could be a dominant goaltender again. He's taken those steps.
I think the next step for him is to really pick up where he left off. I know he was disappointed in his play down the stretch. That's a lot of pressure to put on himself, especially because we wouldn't have been in the position we were if it wasn't for Kari Lehtonen.