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On The Hot Seat? Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk Should Be Safe, For Now

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When Tom Gaglardi purchased the Dallas Stars back in November, discussion started about the job security of General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. Hired in 2009 as one of the final decisions made by previous owner Tom Hicks, Nieuwendyk's Stars have failed to make the postseason the past three years -- and past four years overall -- and with the Stars fighting for relevancy in the tough Dallas/Fort Worth market there was even talk that his job was in danger if the Stars didn't make the playoffs this season.

Now that Gaglardi has full control of the franchise and CEO and President Jim Lites is back with the Stars, we've already seen a significant amount of turnover in the front office. Several high-ranking management personnel are moving on and there's been turnover in several departments inside the organization as well, as the Stars look to move forward after three years of basic stagnation within the franchise itself. It's unfortunate that anyone has to lose their jobs but it's just the nature of ownership changes in sports.

The debate that exists now -- especially moving forward through this summer -- is whether Nieuwendyk is on the proverbial "hot seat" now that Gaglardi owns the team and expectations are going to be extremely high as the team attempts to improve. This notion has been brought up a few times the past few months, but Kevin Sherrington decided to blow it wide open during a chat on DMN last week:

Comment From Burton ... If Joe Nieuwendyk were the GM of any of the other Dallas teams, wouldn't he be out of a job, especially with Dave Tippett and Ken Hitchcock's success this season?

Kevin Sherrington: We were just discussing that over lunch yesterday. He fired Tippett and could have had Hitchcock back. Things are not looking good for Joe, especially with a new owner. I'd say he's on a very short leash.

There is so much to discuss from the sentences above. Let's get started...

The pressure to succeed in professional sports in increasingly high, as coaches and general managers receive less and less time to turn around a team than they generally deserve. Ignoring the other major sports altogether, we've seen instances in hockey alone where a coach is given significantly little time to improve a team before he's shown the door. We even saw it in a way here in Dallas, when Marc Crawford had just two seasons before he was fired in favor of Glen Gulutzan.

The same pressure passes on to General Managers, who are given precious little time to turn a franchise around before being shown the door. There are certainly times when a GM is able to hang on to his job longer than most think necessary but there are cases where a GM change occurs before he was ever able to really leave his mark on a franchise. It has been said that a GM in hockey generally needs around 10 years before his vision and plan can truly be in place and very rarely is such a theory ever given the proper amount of time to really see if that is true.

Not all situations are the same, either. Brian Burke has been the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs since the fall of 2008 and it is tough to say that he has done much to actually improve the team since being hired. The Leafs have missed the playoffs in each of the four seasons he has been in charge -- although it must be pointed out that he has only had three full offseasons with which to work. Just like Joe Nieuwendyk.

The difference, of course, between the two situations is that Brian Burke has been unable to turn around a franchise that generates the most revenue of any team in the NHL and has an exceptional amount of pressure placed upon it to succeed. For good reason, as well, since the Maple Leafs have the highest fan-cost index in the NHL -- while the Stars have the cheapest.

With a payroll that has been right up against the salary cap the past four years, Burke has done little to significantly improve the future of his franchise aside from trading for Phil Kessel (still very controversial) and drafting a few gems in the first round. He still has his job and --for now -- the full backing of the Toronto ownership as he attempts to continue to build his team.

Joe Nieuwendyk, as we all know, has not had it quite so easy.

The Dallas Stars, from the moment that he was named GM, have operated with one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL. Starting in the 2009-10 season, the resources that most general managers have at their disposal were taken away from Nieuwendyk and he was forced to operate with a significantly below-average budget with little to no support from ownership along the way.

This was a situation that changed drastically overnight and was one that the Stars were not prepared for as a franchise. Most contracts signed before Niuewendyk took control were given during a time when the Stars were spending with the best in the NHL, something that changed almost immediately over the course of one calendar year.

We've discussed at length how Nieuwendyk has been forced to operate with limited resources and a limited budget and even though the Stars have yet to make the postseason, he's been able to at least maintain this team at a competitive level -- with the Stars barely missing the postseason two seasons in a row. One year the Stars likely underperformed while this past season it's likely they played better than they really were.

What about the future, however? Just how much pressure is there on Nieuwendyk to succeed now that ownership is fully in place? Let's go back to that Sherrington comment:

Comment From Burton ... If Joe Nieuwendyk were the GM of any of the other Dallas teams, wouldn't he be out of a job, especially with Dave Tippett and Ken Hitchcock's success this season?

Kevin Sherrington: We were just discussing that over lunch yesterday. He fired Tippett and could have had Hitchcock back. Things are not looking good for Joe, especially with a new owner. I'd say he's on a very short leash.

There's no doubt that the pressure to make the postseason this coming year is going to be incredibly high. After four seasons with no playoffs the Stars are in very real danger of disappearing entirely from the minds of the sports fans in Dallas, although we certainly witnessed how meaningful hockey can quickly bring back the big crowds in Dallas in the second half of this past season.

Yet is Joe Nieuwendyk "on a very short leash" as Sherrington says?

To answer this question we have to determine just how much change the Stars should expect over just one summer. Do the Stars have enough resources available to take a team that was not that great last season and instantly turn them into a playoff contender in the incredibly competitive Western Conference in just a few short months?

The Stars are well under the salary cap and will be heading into next season and certainly have the space to make a few very splashy, very expensive free agent signings this summer. I'm certain the pressure from the fans and media for this to happen will be exceptionally high, although the most knowledgeable realize that this is not entirely in the hands of the Stars alone.

The free agent class this summer is far from elite. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter top the list but there is then a steep dropoff in the amount of players able to come to a team like the Stars and immediately help turn a franchise around. We've also seen how teams that make significant investments in immediate improvement (Buffalo, Columbus, perhaps Nashville) don't always actually find that success comes right away and in fact can leave the franchise in a worse position than before.

Ideally, the improvement of a team will come through a smart balance between free agency, trades and most importantly -- drafting. In the landscape of free agency in the NHL right now, teams are not taking the risks of allowing their top young players to get free and those that are come at a much higher price.

The Stars, under Joe Nieuewendyk, have addressed the drafting issue. While the elite level players may not be as present as we'd like, but the farm system overall has been significantly improved by the drafting done by Nieuwendyk and company over the past three summers. Of course, the impact of these drafts will take more than a few years to truly be felt and with the absence of those top "can't miss" prospects -- we have to be patient on how quickly the NHL team is improved by drafting.

Given the circumstances, Nieuwendyk has done an admirable job of keeping the Stars moving forward during the past three years of no ownership support. He has made some very questionable decisions along the way but overall has taken tremendous effort to not only maintain the team competitive with limited resources but has actually improved the team along the way with a few very shrewd trades and offseason acquisitions.

Let's not forget the state of the team that Nieuewndyk inherited, with large contracts and several veteran players entering the final moments of their careers. The Stars were entering a period of time when great change was going to happen anyway, the only issue being that when this change was needed the ability to actually be proactive in improvement was taken away because of ownership issues.

General Managers are generally on the hot seat because they were given resources to succeed and failed to live up to expectations. Joe Nieuwendyk, in one of the toughest situations in hockey these past few years, should not have anywhere near this amount of pressure on him when compared to others around the NHL -- or even other GMs in the Dallas area. Especially considering what Nieuwendyk has had to work with compared to other GMs in the area.

Jon Daniels was vilified in Dallas during his first few years as the GM of the Texas Rangers and now is generally considered one of the best in baseball. It took him a significant amount of time for his vision to become reality -- and it also took the full support of a high-spending ownership group to really put the team over the edge. Jerry Jones is the GM of one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world and Mark Cuban operates the Mavericks at a very high payroll.

The Dallas Stars finally have an owner and expectations are certainly going to be high moving forward. Yet Joe Nieuwendyk deserves more than just one summer -- with a below-average free agent class -- before we decide he's failed in his mission as the General Manager of the team. Expectations will certainly be high heading into this season and his decisions this summer be scrutinized more than any other he's made. The Stars seem to be committed in every way to Joe Nieuwendyk, especially considering the decision to hire Bob Gainey as a consultant.

Yet it could also be argued that he was never truly given this keys to success before this summer and should not be on such a short leash that one summer with Tom Gaglardi is all he gets before being shown the door.