Joe Nieuwendyk Has Dallas Stars Back in Playoff Hunt
But Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk is just going with the flow -- and his method is working. After missing the playoffs a season ago, the Stars rank among the Western Conference leaders. Barring a major collapse, they have all but locked up a playoff spot -- and their chances of securing home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season also look good.
"I've been pleased," said Nieuwendyk, who is in his second season at the Stars' helm. "We've worked hard to get to where we are. We still have a ways to go. But I think there's a belief in the locker-room that we are a good team and we can compete with anybody."
It's an understatement to say that Nieuwendyk's job has not been easy. The Stars are expected to be sold as owner Tom Hicks sorts out financial issues with his hockey team and English soccer club. Any significant moves -- like the acquisition of Jamie Langenbrunner from the New Jersey Devils -- require approval from lenders who are keeping the franchise afloat.
But Nieuwendyk has quietly built a contender while retaining the two executives -- Les Jackson and Brett Hull -- who handled GM duties on a tag-team basis after Doug Armstrong was fired. He has won with a coach, Marc Crawford, whose career appeared to be on the scrap heap after he was fired in Vancouver and Los Angeles, and an injury-riddled goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, who was unwanted by Atlanta, one of the worst teams in the NHL last season.
"I'm enjoying it," said Nieuwendyk of his first GM's job. "It's been really good. Obviously, when you feel like your team is following the same page, it makes life a lot easier. Our team is a hard team to play against this year, and that's what we wanted to focus on."
So how has he done it? From the top down, Nieuwendyk has tried to establish a culture of respect and support.
"We talk a lot to the players about not letting each other down, playing for the guy next to you," he said. "It sounds like an easy cliché, but it takes work to do it. Our guys have put the work in."
While he has made relatively few roster moves, Nieuwendyk has also avoided implementing major changes to his scouting staff -- often a target for new GMs. (For details, see the arrival of Mike Gillis in Vancouver.)
"I don't know that we've tried to introduce anything," said Nieuwendyk. "Les Jackson has been with the organization for 22 years and he's very well-connected with the scouting side of things. I think this organization's been pretty successful over the years with the number of players they've selected in later rounds. As far as our meetings go, we just try and preach the same thing to our scouts as we do to our players just about all being on the same page. If you have continuity within the organization, it makes life a lot easier."
The decision to hire Crawford was his biggest gamble. The veteran coach was scarred by his final days with Vancouver, which included the Todd Bertuzzi incident on former Colorado Avalanche winger Steve Moore, a struggling team and signs that players had tuned him out.
Crawford had also struggled to connect with a young team in Los Angeles that has started to flourish under his replacement, Terry Murray. But, while attempting to stay more cool behind the bench and take a less dictatorial approach with his players, Crawford has brought out the best in the Stars.
"I figured, based on where our team was and the age of some of our players, it was important that I had a guy who had a lot of bench experience," said Nieuwendyk. "We brought in (assistant coach) Willie Desjardins this year. He's been behind the Medicine Hat Tigers bench for (eight) years. He's been terrific. Charlie (Huddy) and Stuey (Barnes) are great assistant coaches for us. So, I mean, it works well. It was important to me to have somebody who has a lot of NHL experience."
Meanwhile, Nieuwendyk managed to get approval from the lenders to sign defenseman Trevor Daley to a new six-year, $19.8-million contract extension and bring Langenbrunner back to the Stars from New Jersey -- along with a $2.8-million salary that is high by Dallas standards.
"It was a little bit of a process and then we had to get clearance with the lenders and through the league," said Nieuwendyk of Langebrunner's acquisition. "(The lenders) told us right from Day 1 just to bring things to them, and if it made sense, they would do it. It's worked out well, because Jamie is a great addition to our hockey club. He's been through some wars before and he'll go through some more for us."
To clear cap space to get him, Nieuwendyk sent underachieving winger Fabian Brunnstrom, who was once considered a can't-miss prospect three years ago, to Toronto for prospect Mikhail Stefanovich and promptly farmed him out to Minsk of Russia's KHL.
But the real tests are yet to come. Nieuwendyk's good work will ultimately be judged in the playoffs -- somewhere Crawford has not been the past four seasons.
Then, by July 1 or beforehand, Nieuwendyk must find a way to re-sign impending unrestricted free agent superstar Brad Richards, who is earning $7.8 million this season. In the meantime, the GM must also prevent the uncertainty surrounding Richards from becoming a major distraction.
"There's really nothing there right now," said Richards. "It's a process. There's communication on both sides and we're looking at new ownership and what's happening. At this point, there's no urgency ... Joe and I have had many discussions and we're going to keep (talking)."
Richards rates his desire to stay as "very high," a point which likely speaks well of Nieuwendyk's negotiation efforts.
When it comes to dealing with his star, Nieuwendyk can draw from personal experience. He wound up being traded to Dallas from Calgary for Jarome Iginla after a contract holdout, and witnessed the disastrous effects of Doug Gilmour's impasse with the Flames.
Chances are Nieuwendyk, who won Stanley Cups with Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey, will figure things out.
And just go with the flow.