DALLAS - As a new general manager, Joe Nieuwendyk tried putting his stamp on the Dallas Stars by making his first coaching hire a well-travelled veteran who'd won a Stanley Cup. That didn't work too well, so Nieuwendyk took the opposite approach this time.
The Stars announced Glen Gulutzan as their new head coach on Friday, tapping a 39-year-old who has never played or coached in the NHL to revive a team stuck in its worst rut since moving to Dallas in 1993.
Nieuwendyk called the difference more coincidence than design, insisting, "He's just the right guy for the job." The front office knows him well because he spent the last two years coaching their top affiliate, the Texas Stars of the AHL, taking them to the finals as an expansion team in 2010 and back to the playoffs this past season.
"Even though he's young and hasn't coached a game in the NHL, his strengths are exactly what we need," Nieuwendyk said. "He just gets it. He understands players. He understands how to mesh players and how to get the most from their ability. We've seen that from talking to players who played for him. We were highly impressed with the structure and the style of play, just the bench demeanour of Glen. I think that's going to translate well with our players."
Nieuwendyk said it would be a "misconception that we hired a young coach to go with our young players."
"He's going to be our leader," Nieuwendyk said. "Even though he's young, has a relationship with some of our guys, they're certainly going to know who is in charge and they will play hard for him."
Two years ago, Nieuwendyk hired Marc Crawford and the Stars missed the post-season twice, failing to make it this season by blowing a lead in the final period of the final game.
The Stars had 95 points, matching the most ever by a team that missed the playoffs. That shows there's a good nucleus. And Gulutzan is familiar with many of the up-and-coming players, having helped groom Jamie Benn, Aaron Gagnon and Tomas Vincour.
It's getting the older guys to believe in him that could be his biggest challenge, and he knows it.
"First and foremost, if you can show the veteran players that what you're trying to do will benefit them and the team as a whole, if they can truly believe you're trying to help them, then everyone can grow from those relationships," Gulutzan said. "The easiest selling point is to have success. That's what makes everyone buy in."
Nieuwendyk also interviewed Ken Hitchcock, coach of Dallas' 1999 Stanley Cup champion club; Montreal assistant Kirk Muller, who was on the 2000 Dallas team that went to the Cup finals; and Nashville assistant coach Peter Horachek.
He said the trend of other teams gambling on young, inexperienced coaches—and seeing many of them hit it big—helped his decision. The Stars actually have a long history of hiring first-time NHL coaches, with Crawford among the few exceptions.
Gulutzan received a two-year contract, with a club option for a third.
A Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, native, and the son of a longtime hockey coach, Gulutzan played professionally in Europe for two seasons, then played in the West Coast Hockey League and the International Hockey League. He also had stints in Finland and Sweden before his first head coaching job, running the expansion Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. They made the playoffs in five of six seasons and reached the finals once and the conference finals another time.
Under his guidance, the Texas Stars went 87-56-17 during the regular season and 16-14 during the playoffs. He's also 5-0 in Game 7s.
"I think the best way to describe my philosophy is a hard two-way game that has today's tempo," Gulutzan said.
The Stars have missed the playoffs three straight years after failing to qualify only twice in their first 14 season in Dallas. There were some glorious seasons mixed in, with Nieuwendyk starring on the club that won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and returning to the finals in 2000.
Dallas was in the conference finals as recently as 2008, but hasn't made the playoffs since. In addition to a coaching turnstile—from Dave Tippett to Crawford to Gulutzan—the club is in the process of being sold.
Gulutzan (pronounced GULL-it-zen) said he was willing to wade into this sticky situation in part because of what a great opportunity it is. But he also believes the team is on the way back up.
"Everyone in the hockey world knows the pieces are here—goaltending, skill up front," he said. "We just have to add to it now."