The five-year postseason drought for the Dallas Stars, one that is now finally over, was defined by one very simple and very frustrating them over each progressive season: This was a team that was struggling to not only find a singular direction in which to head, but a team and a franchise without a clear identity.
It's a question we were asking ourselves following that disastrous 2011 campaign, in which a 95-point team flopped in the biggest game of the season and sparked the quick departure of coach Marc Crawford after just two seasons. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk was tasked with a seemingly impossible task and one that we've chronicled extensively over the years -- build a winning and competitive team with almost zero ownership and financial support while attempting to restock a decimated farm system amid an aging roster built when the money was much easier to come by.
Joe Nieuwendyk, at the end of the day, was a good general manager who had a vision. He understood that the game was changing and he understood the value of a draft pick, and prospects, and building from within. He was part of the building of a foundation from the ground floor up where none had existed before, with the Texas Stars in Austin finally providing the prospect pipeline the franchise desperately needed. If you take a close look at the roster that is finally in the playoffs for Dallas, you'll see Nieuwendyk's fingerprints up and down the lineup.
Where Nieuwendyk failed the most, however, was in never finding the right coaching staff to fully see his vision come to fruition. Firing Dave Tippett in 2009 after just one bad season was seen as a major mistake by some, both then and now, but it's clear that Nieuwendyk firmly believed the Stars needed to transition away from the defensive and "boring" style of hockey the franchise had long been known for.
This site wasn't named "Defending Big D" for no reason.
So, Nieuwendyk turned to coach Marc Crawford, reportedly on the suggestion of some very trusted colleagues, with the aim of pushing the franchise in a new direction entirely. Crawford was supposed to bring an up-tempo and more exciting brand of hockey to Dallas and instead his tenure was defined by a locker room that basically shunned him midway through his first season and a basic lack of structure that ultimately doomed them.
Not to mention, practicing the shootout before that final game in Minnesota might just be one of the worst coaching decisions made in recent memory.
The Stars then turned to Glen Gulutzan, who had started so strong in Cedar Park with the Texas Stars and was apparently the best option of the coaches the team could actually afford. Gulutzan was hired when the franchise was at its absolute worst financially and was on the brink of heading through bankruptcy, but he was also seen as a young and innovative young coach adept at pulling the most potential out of any roster he was given.
Gulutzan is a very intelligent and considerate person and is certainly one of the "good guys" in the business, but it's clear he was in way over his head going to the NHL so soon in his career. He never seemed to be able to truly get his team to connect with one another the way they did in the AHL, and his tenure was defined by a complete lack of structure and most importantly -- a lack of an actual team identity.
"Pesky" is not an identity.
It was the structure aspect of the Stars that was most frustrating and how it appeared as if the Stars were a mere collection of individuals rather than an actual cohesive team. Dallas unable to adjust in-game and two years in a row faded down the stretch when teams around them were able to find that third and fourth gear in the race for the postseason while the Stars were stuck in neutral.
Most alarming, however, was that this lack of identity and structure certainly started at the very top. Communication and accountability within the organization was seemingly non-existent, most evidenced by the disastrous decision to bring in Reilly Smith at the end of the 2012 season only to burn the first year of his contract on five minutes a night with a slew of healthy scratches.
Exit Joe Nieuwendyk, enter Jim Nill.
Exit Glen Gulutzan, enter Lindy Ruff.
Two major changes that have had a very drastic change on this franchise from the very top all the way down.
When the Stars were in the midst of that coaching search last summer, one that lasted nearly a month with Jim Nill seemingly in no rush to make a rash decision, everyone had their opinion on which direction the team should go. This time around money wasn't much of a factor, and Nill made a big push to lure the biggest free agent coach on the market -- Alain Vigneault. Here was a coach that was everything the Stars had tried to be the previous few seasons; he embraced an offensively-focused game, he was a major proponent of possession hockey and he knew how to put his best players in the best position to succeed.
Yet Vigneault chose the bright lights of the Big Apple, and Nill was forced to look for a second option.
I don't think there were many who expected Lindy Ruff to be who the Stars turned to, nor were many enthusiastic about that idea. He had coached in Buffalo for too long, his teams had not been very competitive in recent seasons and there were major questions about whether the "game had passed him by." Yet Nill seemingly never considered anyone else, and Ruff was soon named the new head coach of the Dallas Stars.
Not many were very enthusiastic about the hiring but given what was being said when it all went down, I think we understood at the time what the Stars were trying to find when Lindy Ruff was hired.
The most important aspect of this hiring is the shared vision between the head coach and his general manager. Jim Nill comes from a stable and long-term situation in Detroit where the Red Wings organization has been the most consistently successful in the NHL over the past two decades, and he's stated he wants the same situation to develop in Dallas. He want's to bring long-term and consistent success back to Dallas, and chances are he's going to model his organization in the same manner in which the Red Wings were run.
What we do know of Ruff is that the approach that Stars fans have been wanting to see for the past four years is likely to change once more. This isn't a coach that gets caught up in advanced tactics or line-matching strategies; we're not expecting a sudden breakthrough to a more modern, advanced statistics approach like we were starting to see the past year or so under Nieuwendyk. Instead, Ruff is more of the old-school type of coach who wants to build a solid team up and down the ice and wants all of his players capable of playing in most every situation.
We didn't know exactly what to expect from Lindy Ruff but what we've seen is almost exactly what we were most hoping for when he was hired. He had shown throughout his career he was able to coach several different styles of hockey based on the team that was built and put before him, and he emphasized a well-rounded roster where the fourth line could blend with the second and minutes evenly distributed when able.
Most importantly, Ruff stressed that he was going to bring an identity and structure back to Dallas Stars hockey. A full regular season and 82 games later, it's safe to say that he has certainly delivered on that promise.
The 2013-2014 Dallas Stars are far from a perfect team and on paper had taken a bit of a step back over previous rosters when it came to overall talent and experience. The addition of Tyler Seguin was a tremendous boost, but this was a team that was finally going into the rebuild that had been slowly started under Joe Nieuwendyk and while the postseason was always the goal -- Jim Nill certainly had the big picture in mind all along, as evidenced by his decisions made at the trade deadline.
So, as we sit on the cusp of the first postseason series for the Dallas Stars since that magical run in 2008 it's fair to say this is a team that has certainly overachieved in many aspects and is now sitting happy while playing with house money. No one really expected this outcome and everything from this point forward can be seen as nothing more than a true sports blessing of which we should all be incredibly thankful.
The Stars have certainly been an inconsistent team over the course of this season, mostly when it came to actual results on the ice. No matter what the outcomes of the games were, however, Ruff was coaching a team that never appeared ready to just give up and lose faith when times were at their hardest and in fact, it was clear those rough patches were when the coaching staff pushed the hardest for the players to embrace their system and structure and have faith that in the end it will all work out for the best.
Consider what the Dallas Stars looked like those first few weeks of the season and how little this current team resembles that turnover-prone and apprehensive roster that first took the ice in October. Consider how far the Stars have come and while there have been recent concerns (the losses to Carolina and Florida come to mind) this was a team that never allowed those stumbles to ultimately define their season.
Just how far the Dallas Stars have come was never in more evidence than in the biggest game of the season, at home against the St. Louis Blues and postseason berth on the line. The game had "trap" written all over and instead the Stars played perhaps their most dominant game of the past five years; they seized the moment and ran with it, all the while putting on display exactly what Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff have built over the course of the season.
These Dallas Stars have an identity. These Dallas Stars have structure. This is a team operating within a well-defined system and embracing every aspect of that system; one that starts with Willie Desjardins and Doug Lidster down in Cedar Park and extends to Lindy Ruff, Curt Fraser and James Patrick in Dallas.
Take a moment and go back and watch that St. Louis game again, especially the first period. The Blues were on a four-game losing streak and missing many key players, but Ken Hitchcock did a hell of job putting a plan in place in which to maximize the roster he had. The Blues' structure through the first period was extraordinary and the Stars struggled to get through the middle of the ice and use their speed like they desired, and it was amazing to see how a team missing so many could still be that competitive.
The final two periods were a different story altogether and defined the season for the Stars. Every strength of the team was on full display: the tenacity and speed and relentless attack of all four lines, along with a defensive unit showed just how good they had become at moving the puck quickly and safely out of the zone. The zone-exit structure of the Stars this season has shown an extraordinary improvement over seasons past, and that all comes down to the job put forth by this coach staff.
Consider the seasons we're seeing by Jordie Benn, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley. Marvel that the Stars are in the postseason with those three as the most impactful defensemen on the team, and consider just what sort of incredible season the longest-tenured player on the roster is having under this coaching staff.
Not every decision made by Lindy Ruff and company have been perfect and the streaky nature of the Stars has certainly been frustrating. Yet it's clear just how far this team has come in such a short time and the incredible potential the Stars have in the years ahead and much of that is due to a revitalized Lindy Ruff and James Patrick regaining their hockey mojo after getting out of the cesspool that has become Buffalo Sabres hockey.
The 2013-2014 Dallas Stars, by all accounts, should never have made it this far and yet here we are -- with all of the credit due to an incredible job by a veteran coaching staff that has pulled so much from a roster that has never given this much.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are here. Thanks, Lindy.