After a season full of twists and turns, on Sunday morning, one day after their last game of the season and three days after being eliminated from the playoffs, the Dallas Stars made another huge announcement, officially firing general manager Joe Nieuwendyk.
With only 48 games spread across four months, the lockout-shortened regular season was a hectic one for the Stars. The year saw a Jamie Benn contract dispute, injuries to multiple star players, the emergence of promising young blood, the trading away of key veterans, and an unexpectedly heroic post-trade deadline winning streak, all leading to a heart-wrenching skid at the end that dashed all remaining hope of a playoff berth.
Front and center for the entire thing was Nieuwendyk, and in the end, his ax was the first to fall as the team missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the fourth under his tenure.
The Stars wasted no time in announcing his replacement on Monday, introducing long-time Detroit Red Wings assistant-GM Jim Nill as the new man pulling the strings. Nill comes to the Stars with a stacked resume, being a key management pomponent in the team’s four Stanley Cup victories within the last sixteen years.
According to Stars owner Tom Gaglardi, the decision to replace Nieuwendyk with Nill isn’t as much based on the failures of the former, but moreso on the credentials and potential of the latter, but still, it’s hard to believe that Nieuwendyk’s inability to build a playoff roster for four straight years didn’t heavily come into play.
Although immensely popular from his playing days with Dallas, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and helping the team win the Stanley Cup in 1999, Nieuwendyk’s tenure as a GM was less than memorable. His choices when it came to coaches never panned out, firing Dave Tippet for Marc Crawford and then hiring Glen Gulutzan over Ken Hitchcock (Tippet and Hitchcock both went on to win Jack Adams awards as the NHL’s best coach, with Phoenix and St. Louis, respectively), while trading away James Neal and Matt Niskanen in exchange for Alex Goligoski was a move, rightly or wrongly, that was ostracized in the media and will likely never be seen as anything but a huge loss for the Stars.
Add in the free agent loss of Brad Richards for no return, Mike Modano not being resigned and playing his last games as a Red Wing, the drafting of Scott Glennie in 2009, and some questionable returns on trades and you have a track record that is certainly far from perfect.
Yet, looking back on Nieuwendyk’s general manager stint as a whole, it’s hard to not hold an overall favourable opinion regarding what he managed to accomplish.
When Nieuwendyk took over as GM in June of 2009, he inherited a Stars team that was on the verge of a serious disaster. Longtime owner Tom Hicks was in severe financial straits, causing the Stars to drastically change from being one of the league’s more financially aggressive free agency bidders, a strategy that the franchise used mostly successfully for over a decade to bring in high-end talent, to being a team that operated at the very floor of the salary cap.
A decade of being one of the NHL’s elite teams left the Stars focused on winning then, but not preparing for the future. In 2009 the Stars roster was well past it’s collective prime, and the cupboards were almost completely barren of prospects. With a roster that was out of gas, no money to sign free agent help, and no budding superstars to step into the fold, Nieuwendyk was forced to enter the Stars into the process of a tough, long-term rebuild.
But in spite of the enormous, Obama-circa-2008-like mess that he took on when he got hired for the job, Nieuwendyk left a commendable mark on the organization. Although it hasn’t been perfect, it’s undeniable that the Stars franchise is in a much better place now than when it was when he started.
The prospect pool has been refilled with a glut of talent and depth at nearly every position, notably without the help of any high-end draft picks, propelling the Stars into having one of the league’s healthiest prospect systems. Hockey’s Future currently ranks the Stars at 12, a huge leap from where they stood four years ago.
And even though the Stars failed to make the playoffs recently, the team still remained consistently competitive, coming within points of a playoff berth in more than one season.
In honour of Nieuwendyk’s time with the Stars, here is a quick look at some of his best moves as GM.
Acquiring Kari Lehtonen in exchange for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th round pick.
With Marty Turco declining and approaching free agency, Nieuwendyk made a big gamble in February of 2010, picking up Lehtonen, a former 2nd overall draft pick, from the Atlanta Thrashers as his new goalie of the future. Despite some hiccups with injuries that have hampered him his whole NHL career, Lehtonen’s talent is undeniable. He’s consistently been one of Dallas’ top players since he joined the team, and has emerged as one of the league’s elite netminders, posting a career-high .921 save percentage in 2011-2012. At age 29 and under a long contract, Lehtonen should continue to be a goaltending force for the Stars.
Vishnevskiy, in comparison, never played an NHL game after getting traded, and is currently plying his trade in the KHL.
Signing Ray Whitney to a two-year contract
A free agent at 40 years of age last offseason, Ray Whitney wasn’t exactly beating off free agent suitors with a stick. He received offers from a few teams, but they weren’t interested in signing the wily vet to anything beyond a single year contract. Nieuwendyk locked Whitney down for two years in a move that is now making those other NHL teams look foolish.
Whitney posted 29 points in 32 games with the Stars in 2013, despite a broken foot early in the season, and looks completely capable of achieving a similar amount of success next year.
Trading Mike Ribeiro for Cody Eakin and a 2nd round pick
While Dallas certainly lost this pick in the short term, with Ribeiro posting 49 points in 48 games for the Washington Capitals in 2013, they certainly won it in the long term. The high-flying Eakin posted 24 points in 48 games for the Stars, and is quickly becoming a fan favourite due to his relentless attack and dogged hard work. While the Capitals might only get one season out of the 33 year-old soon-to-be free agent Ribeiro, Dallas looks like they will get a lot of very good years out of the 21 year-old Eakin.
That 2nd round pick became forward Mike Winther, who is having a productive junior career so far with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders.
Signing undrafted free agents Brenden Dillon, Matt Fraser and others
With a severe lack of quality prospects to work with when he took over as GM, Nieuwendyk had to get creative when it came to the rebuilding process.
The results he got have already exceeded all expectations, and are looking more and more promising as time goes on.
Relying on the diligence of his scouts, Nieuwendyk began adding undrafted young pieces that have become integral to the core of the franchise’s future. Brenden Dillon was one of Dallas’ top defencemen this year and shows the potential to be a top pair defenceman in this league for a long time, while left wing Matt Fraser is coming off of back-to-back 30-plus goal seasons in the AHL. This also isn’t taking into account the impressive development of Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, Jordie Benn and others.