If there is one thing we learned from Joe Nieuwendyk's tenure as the Dallas Stars general manager, it's that the most important decision to be made is usually the first.
Nieuwendyk was hired in 2009 by Tom Hicks to enact a "culture change" with the Stars, to lead the franchise in a new direction after what amounted to an incredibly disappointing season marred by injuries and frustration. Hindsight is certainly interesting, four years later, but at the time most fans were concerned that the team had only advanced by the first round of the playoffs just twice under head coach Dave Tippett. The Stars had high expectations at the time and this was a franchise that expected nothing but the best.
Part of that change involved changing the approach of the team on the ice. Nieuwendyk wanted a more explosive and aggressive team and spoke frequently of the Detroit Red Wings and their attack in those opening days after he was hired.
At the time, Nieuwendyk spoke of being patient and taking his time in making a decision about the current coach. For many Stars fans, it seemed to be logical that Tippett should have been retained; after all, the failings of that season were not exactly his fault and due mostly to devastating injuries to Brad Richards and Brenden Morrow, as well as the loss of no less than three very important and talented defensemen.
Despite indications that Tippett could be retained, Nieuwendyk made the surprising decision to fire the long-time coach and hire Marc Crawford. Perhaps it wasn't so much the decision to fire Tippett as it was that Crawford would be his replacement, a coach that had not had success during his last stint coaching in the NHL.
Safe to say, hiring Crawford was perhaps the biggest mistake of Nieuwendyk's time in Dallas and it was the very first one he'd made.
The decision to fire Marc Crawford was an easy one, just two years later, and many felt that Glen Gulutzan was certainly a step in the right direction. It followed the trend of hiring young, successful head coaches out of the AHL and not many had been more successful that Gulutzan, whether that had been in the ECHL or during two years in Austin with the Texas Stars.
The "type" of coach also seemed to match what the team supposedly needed. There was talk that Tippett, a highly demanding coach, had lost the ear of the players in the locker room. By many accounts Crawford had the same sort of issues, never finding a true relationship with his team and choosing to distance himself from the players. Crawford was certainly knowledgeable about how to deploy his lines and construct a team, but the Stars never really had any "life" with Crawford behind the bench.
Gulutzan was a step in a new direction, a "player's coach" that had a reputation of getting the most out of his teams and his players and forging great relationships with those that played for him. He also fit the mold of Nieuwendyk the general manager, who had long made it clear he wasn't as big a fan of the hardcore, demanding coaches you see around the NHL.
The struggles of Gulutzan and the Stars the past two seasons have been well documented. Last season, Gulutzan took some time to figure out that line deployment in the NHL was much different in the AHL, and a shift in how he utilized his players resulted in the second-half surge that briefly landed the Stars in the top spot in the Pacific Division.
Under Gulutzan, just like Crawford, the Stars were inconsistent. When the team needed just one or two wins in the final stretches of the season, each year the Stars responded with a five-game losing streak that left Dallas out of the postseason once again. The circumstances surrounding each losing streak were incredibly different, but the results are impossible to ignore and in the end that's all that really matters.
There's also the fact that there has been almost zero continuity on the roster with Gulutzan on the bench, with the Stars basically putting three different teams on the ice is just one and a half seasons. After last year's collapse, Nieuwendyk traded Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott and let several key veterans depart via free agency. This season, the team that finished the year in April in no way resembled the team that took the ice in January against Phoenix.
How fair is it to Gulutzan to place the blame on his shoulders, with so much turnover on the roster and literally zero time to prepare his team. Consider that only seven players that started the season with the Stars in 2011 were still on the roster when the 2013 season concluded. That's an incredible amount of turnover for one coach.
Not to mention that, especially in the final few weeks of this season, that the one issue truly plaguing the Stars was beyond his control: The Dallas Stars were simply not talented enough.
So now Jim Nill has the same tough decision ahead that Nieuwendyk faced when he was hired four years ago. In 2009, Nieuwendyk waiting just four days before firing Tippett and hiring Crawford and Jim Nill had not even been formally announced as GM before the reports started rolling in that Gulutzan will be fired as well. The situation is a bit different this time around, since Gulutzan is technically not under contract next season, so he wouldn't necessarily be "fired" as much as "not asked to return" next season.
Nill has been asked several times in the past few days, in nearly every interview, about the future of the Stars head coach. Every answer has been almost the exact same, that he needs to sit down and talk with his coaching staff and with Gulutzan himself before a decision is made.
"Everything has happened very quick here, and I'm going sit down with all of the staff and we're going to go through everything," Nill said on Monday when announced as the Stars' GM. "It's going to be about a two-week process, and we'll make decisions from there. But right now, we're going to be very patient with decisions, we're not going to rush through anything. I've been sitting on the outside, I need to get on the inside, and we'll go from there.''
"Right now, we've got a head coach, and that's where I'm going from," said Nill. "Right now, I have a head coach and two assistants, and I'm going to sit down with them and go from there."
It's very rare for a general manager to retain the head coach that was in place when he was hired. The circumstances around this particular hiring are interesting in that Nieuwendyk was fired not so much because of the abject failure of the franchise, but because Nill apparently became available and open. Perhaps Nill sees potential in Gulutzan, a coach that has been forced to learn on the fly with an underwhelming roster and who got the most out of his team when everyone considered the Stars dead at the switch following the trade deadline.
"That's the balance," Gulutzan told the DMN, when discussing how to handle outside influence and his own coaching "voice." Gulutzan certainly seemed to be at his best with young players, when the amount of direction from outside sources seemed to quiet down.
"You have to be open to learn and open to understand, and then once you learn, you have to harden up. When you get good information, and you learn, then your thoughts become much clearer. That's the positions I'm in now. I know what my thoughts are, and certainly you're more ready to fight for what you believe in than you would be as a younger coach. And that's just experience, you can call it whatever you want, but that's experience."
It's tough to deny that Gulutzan has certainly shown improvement as a coach, but has it been enough? Are there better options available, and how does Gulutzan's approach as a coach match what Jim Nill is seeking in the team he wants to build?
Unlike four years ago, it seems the decision on the head coach will take a bit longer than just a few days. Time will tell.