By Allan Muir
If you're looking for a major reason why Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi has reportedly axed fourth-year general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, you really only needed to glance around the stands at the American Airlines Center on Saturday night. Two colorful clues made it obvious: Grey, as in the thousands of empty seats, and red, as in the jerseys and shirts worn by the majority of fans who showed up to support the visiting Detroit Red Wings.
Gaglardi spent nearly a quarter-billion dollars to purchase the Stars about 18 months ago with an eye on rebuilding a flagging brand. This scene, reminiscent of so many others during his brief tenure, wasn't what he had in mind. Neither was a team that ended a fifth straight season without a playoff berth after 3-0 loss to the hated Wings.
In Dallas, a town where hockey has always had to struggle for attention, the Stars have finally collapsed into irrelevance. Gaglardi knew he couldn't sell the same weak tea next season.
He had to be able to offer a significantly different product. And he had to start with a change at the top.
Did Nieuwendyk get a fair shake? Probably not. His first 30 months on the job were spent handcuffed by the penurious ownership of Tom Hicks. It's tough to buy steak on a hot dog budget. And under Gaglardi, his power was reduced by the influence of an owner who is believed to have pushed hard for the signings of aging veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney in search of instant results rather than go big to fill a genuine need with Ryan Suter, and who hired long-time friend Mark Recchi to "assist" Nieuwendyk.
The GM really never had a chance.
That said, his body of work was something of a mixed bag. His bold acquisition of franchise goaltender Kari Lehtonen was overshadowed by the disastrous deal that sent James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. Nieuwendyk was raked over the coals for the meager returns he achieved when dealing Jagr, Derek Roy and captain Brenden Morrow at the deadline, though honestly, no one is suggesting there were better offers to be had. And while his use of first-round picks on Jack Campbell and Scott Glennie may yet pay off, both could have been spent on players who were capable of helping the team this season.
And there's no way to sugarcoat missing the playoffs in each of his four seasons.
Down the road a piece, Nieuwendyk's legacy is likely to look much better, primarily because of the work he put into rebuilding a farm system that was nearly devoid of talent when he took over. Recognizing the team's most glaring weak spot, he stockpiled young defenders. Brenden Dillon, a brilliant free agent signing who may have been the season's best rookie blueliner not named Jonas Brodin, could be joined soon in Dallas by Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Joe Morrow, Kevin Connauton and Ludvig Bystrom, among others. There's some interesting talent up front as well in Alex Chiasson, Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie. None look like superstars, but all could make sizable contributions down the road.
That's a nice nest egg he left for Jim Nill, the long-serving assistant GM in Detroit who reportedly will be Nieuwendyk's successor. If he signs on as expected, it's a huge get for the Stars. Nill has arguably been the most coveted GM candidate for the better part of a decade.
Many will focus on why Nill chose now to leave Detroit, and why he picked the Stars after turning down several jobs in the past. That information will come soon enough. But the most interesting element from the Dallas perspective might be that he's the first non-internal hire for the position since the franchise moved to Texas 20 years ago. And that means the changes coming under his administration could be significant.
Coach Glen Gulutzan, whose contract is up, won't be back. Neither will much of his staff (with the likely exception of goaltending coach Mike Valley and possibly Curt Fraser). And those hot prospects? Who knows how Nill's outsider eyes will view them. Some may match his vision of the future. Others may be trade bait.
The same can be said for pretty much anyone outside of Lehtonen and Jamie Benn on the current Stars squad. Five years without a playoff appearance puts everybody up for review. Being an outsider will allow Nill to make those calls without prejudice. And that's exactly what Gaglardi is looking for.
He's tired of losing. He's tired of the empty seats. And by making this bold move, he's finally showing that he might be the Mark Cuban-esque owner several insiders promised he'd be when he bought the club. If the Stars weren't the team to watch during this offseason, they certainly are now.