One day you’re the hero, the next day you are the goat. From their inception, professional sports have provided countless examples of this phenomenon. In the case of former Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, the rise and fall stretched over a span of fourteen years.
The organization announced the firing of Nieuwendyk April 28 after a four year tenure marked by questionable trades and head-scratching free agent signings. The move was an unflattering end for the Conn Smythe recipient of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals. Many players on that team were deserving, but Joe Nieuwendyk’s clutch scoring and leadership (he wore the “C” during the first round due to incumbent Derian Hatcher’s suspension) deemed him the most valuable member of the team’s championship run.
Always a classy player, Nieuwendyk endeared himself to Stars fans with his determined play and his courage. He played the ’98-99 season on two reconstructed knees—a testament to the man’s will and team-first mentality.
A decade later, Nieuwendyk was hired to be the Stars GM. Fans rejoiced and welcomed the hero’s return to right the course of a franchise in decline. “GM Joe” brought familiarity, a bit of nostalgia and had the fans in his corner from Day 1. It wasn’t the ideal spot for a rookie GM. The franchise was in bankruptcy, hamstringing Nieuwendyk’s ability to maneuver from the get-go.
The Good of Nieuwendyk
As with any GM of a professional sports team, some decisions prove to be right and some terribly wrong. Joe Nieuwendyk’s signing of Kari Lehtonen amid some skepticism landed the Stars an elite goaltender. GM Joe proved capable of the tough decisions, parting ways with fan favorites Mike Modano, Brendan Morrow and Steve Ott during his tenure.
Then the Bad and Ugly
However, the majority of his moves and signings proved incomprehensible. Shipping off James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski has been a colossal bust. Gambling that superstar Brad Richards would stay in Dallas when teams with deeper pockets were lining up in the offseason resulted in a non-trade at the deadline and Richards walked in the summer with no return for the Stars.
The dearth of playmaking centers meant skilled rookie Jamie Benn was forced to play center instead of his natural wing position. Benn gets by on his talent, but asking a rookie to center the first line puts immense pressure on the player and could have easily resulted in Benn’s implosion.
The constant flip-flopping strategy of signing grizzled veterans and injecting youth into the lineup resulted in a team without any semblance of a true identity. Add to that Joe Nieuwendyk’s selection of rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan, and the team never jelled whether it was trying to be an offensively puck-moving juggernaut or a solid defensive grinder. Most nights Gulutzan appeared confused and overwhelmed behind the bench. A team with as many youngsters as the Stars fielded this past season screams for an authoritative presence in the head coach’s role.
Four years later, the team still struggles with consistent scoring and a glaringly ineffective defense corps that does not protect the crease, has trouble moving the puck out of its zone and can be pushed around like rag dolls. The team still lacks an identity, and is in just as much disarray as it was when the tenure of Joe Nieuwendyk began. And that’s how a beloved former Star flames out.