As we roll into another week of the 2013 offseason, with the NHL playoffs continuing with some fine hockey in the Western Conference and boring blowout hockey in the East, the Dallas Stars move forward with the coaching search that is such a major part of this fresh start for the franchise.
It's safe to say that the Dallas Stars we see on the ice in just four months will, in many different ways, resemble a completely different team than that with which we have grown accustomed. The black and white jerseys of the past six years will be replaced by a vibrant green jersey, Jim Nill will be heading into his first season as the general manager and owner Tom Gaglardi will finally made his mark on the franchise he purchased nearly two years ago.
The "fresh start" is something we have discussed a lot in regards to the Dallas Stars and this is about as clean a fresh start as you could have. A new owner, a new general manager and a new head coach -- along with the "rebranding" of the team -- will all have this team heading in a new direction and hopefully down a path that is defined by a proven identity, structure and approach that taps into the future potential we all see with this franchise.
Which is why choosing the right head coach will be so important, and why Jim Nill is smart in taking his time to make a decision.
Four years ago Joe Nieuwendyk began his tenure as the Stars' GM with a major mistake with his decision to hire Marc Crawford as successor to Dave Tippett. Given just how quickly the hiring was made, it's likely that Nieuwendyk was hired with Crawford already in mind and that when he fired Tippett -- Crawford's hiring was just a formality. It has been said that the decision to hire Crawford was driven by the opinions of executives that Nieuwendyk trusted but ultimately the choice as his alone.
The Gulutzan hiring is a debatable one, but the general consensus is that it wasn't nearly the disastrous hire that Crawford had been two years later. Gulutzan did the best with what he was given and while he certainly had his shortcomings, I don't think many Stars fans harbor ill will towards the young head coach.
Nonetheless, the Stars are now in the midst of their third coaching search in four years -- a trend that must stop immediately.
Jim Nill's biggest challenge is not just finding the right coach for next season, but the right coach for five seasons from now. There's no doubting that, more than anything, Nill wants to recreate the consistency and stability that exists within the Detroit organization -- where one long-time head coach was replaced with another head coach that continues to find success nearly a decade later.
While we'd like to find instant postseason success, Dallas Stars fans are much more interested in returning to the sustained success enjoyed from 1996 to 2008 when the franchise was one of the very best in the NHL. The head coach is just a big a part of that goal as the decisions that will be made by Nill and his front office moving forward.
The biggest question on everyone's mind, however, is just what sort of coach Nill is interested in hiring. Part of that mystery is that it's unknown what sort of team he'd like the Dallas Stars to be; the best estimate is that the style employed by the Red Wings is one that Nill would like to replicate in Dallas -- a heavy puck possession team with good defensive awareness and depth at forward conducive that uses a good combination of speed and size and two-way awareness to find success nearly every single season.
The key to such a system -- or any system at all, really -- is how such a system is coached. Perhaps the biggest issue that plagued Nieuwenyk and Gulutzan the past two years is that the Dallas Stars lacked any sort of identifiable system or structure, and "pesky" is not a very good example of such a system. The Stars desperately need an identity and that starts with Nill but will ultimately be defined by the coach he hires.
The possibilities for the next head coach are the same names being bandied about for the other vacant positions in the NHL: Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault, Dave Tippett, Guy Carbonneau, and Larry Robinson as well as a host of other assistants from around the NHL. There's also the possibility of hiring from the AHL, with Will Desjardins and Dallas Eakins at the top of that list.
Already, the Stars coaching search has been linked to "talks" with Ruff and Vigneault. Whether these talks were actual interviews or just gauging interest is anybody's guess, but it stands to reason that these two coaches would be at the top of the list for Nill to speak to right at the top of his search.
It certainly seems that those two are the two most likely candidates, as this is a team that screams for the need for a head coach with NHL experience. Both also seem to employ a very similar approach as coaches, although there are some set differences.
Lindy Ruff was the long-time coach of the Buffalo Sabres and is considered very favorably around the NHL for that longevity. It seems that there is a higher amount of excuses associated with Ruff, however, as his teams made the postseason just twice in the past six years and both times were met with quick first-round exits. Before that, the Sabres had made the Conference Finals in both seasons coming out of the lockout and had generally been one of the most successful teams in the East before that.
Ruff survived several changes in the front office as well as an ownership change, yet it seems more and more like he struggled to adapt to the "new NHL" after the 2004-05 lockout. His gruff approach and grating coaching style seemed to wear out its welcome well before he was fired, and I'm on record as saying that Ruff is probably my least favorite candidate of all.
On the other end of the spectrum is Alain Vigneault, who enjoyed an incredibly successful run with the Vancouver Canucks that included a run to the Cup Final in 2011 but who crashed and burned in the two postseasons since. Elevated expectations and incredible pressure in Vancouver led to what was his obvious eventual dismissal -- and similar to Ruff there is a lot of reasoning being given for why he failed to deliver when the pressure was highest.
Vigneault is not a perfect coach and he was behind the bench of one of the more hated teams in the NHL, yet there's no denying his innovative strategies helped forge the Canucks as one hell of a formidable team. Vigneault is a coach that embraces advanced metrics and works tirelessly to take advantage of matchups up and down the ice.
There's no doubt Vigneault is certainly my personal top choice.
Over the next week or so we'll be taking a closer look at all of the candidates in this search, as well as how their coaching styles would affect the Stars moving forward. Jim Nill has a very difficult decision ahead of him, as well as the gamble that goes into the timing of such a search -- make a decision too early and a better candidate could come available as the playoffs in the AHL and NHL conclude. Take too long, and the top choice could be snatched up by another team completely.
Who is your top choice?