Life has a way of throwing us curveballs. Come to think about it, so does the hockey world—even if they use pucks and they don’t curve. Conventional wisdom told us that either Kirk Muller or Ken Hitchcock were next in line for the Dallas Stars head coaching spot. Not only do they both have ties to Stars’ GM Joe Nieuwendyk, but those have been the rumors behind the scenes as well. There were rumors as soon as Marc Crawford was fired, it was Kirk Muller’s job to lose. Then later, we heard from a trustworthy journalist that Hitchcock already had a deal in place. Of course, Joe Nieuwendyk proved that no one really knew anything.
If these were rumors were from a message board, it would be one thing. But since both made sense and both had some steam from sources within the NHL, it seemed safe to assume that it was a two horse race.
This is why off-the-record sources are off-the-record.
Who knows what happened behind the scenes with Muller and Hitchcock. I still believe that Muller was a front-runner at some time—and it was later revealed that Hitchcock was one of the four nominees that were interviewed. But at the end of the day, the Stars chose to stay away from the sexy candidates and went with the guy who they knew best: Texas Stars headman Glen Gulutzan.
Then again, looking back on the decision, the Gulutzan hiring shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Nieuwendyk said he already had Gulutzan in mind when he fired Crawford a few days after the season ended. In fact, there were as many as seven reasons for hiring Gulutzan. That’s more reasons than your local Pizza Hut has when they hire their general manager.
He wanted to put his stamp on the team. Again.
Nieuwendyk brought in his own guy as soon as he took over when he fired Dave Tippett and brought in Marc Crawford. Another move that was made two years ago? Gulutzan (and a ton of his staff) was brought in from Vegas to take over the team in Austin.
“This time around, I’m looking for a guy who can grow with a young group of players,” said Nieuwendyk of his new bench boss. That seemingly rules out Ken Hitchcock as well, who did get an interview, and leaves just Gulutzan (39) and Muller (45).”
You want reasons? Here are 7 reasons why GM Joe Nieuwendyk and the Dallas Stars decided to drop an unexpected bombshell and hire Glen Gulutzan. And no, none of the reasons included “Conan O’Brien look-alike.”
1. He’s a winner
Here’s what we know about Glen Gulutzan: the man wins a lot.
Let’s take a look back at Gulutzan and what he’s done over his last eight years of coaching. The 39-year-old took a job with the Las Vegas Wranglers and proceeded to make the most of his opportunity. Instead of spouting off stats, here’s the best way to describe Gulutzan’s job in Vegas. Every single year, they were good. They’d be one of the best teams in the league, one of the top seeds in the playoffs, or one of the favorites to win the Kelly Cup each and every year. In a league where players come and go faster than a $20 bill in the adjacent casino, they were always competitive. There must have been a reason for that. Altogether, Gulutzan lead the Wranglers to five playoff appearances in his six seasons—including a trip to the Kelly Cup Final and the Conference Finals in his last two seasons.
Here’s the rundown I got from a friend, self-proclaimed hockey expert, and Las Vegas season ticket holder:
“Good coach. Great eye for good young talent. Led Las Vegas to 5 straight payoffs, 3 conference finals, and an ECHL final. Great offensive coach, average defensive coach. Oh, and he hates fighting.”
Like a player, the next step after conquering the ECHL is moving onto the AHL. Gulutzan took a job with the Dallas Stars creatively named affiliate Texas Stars in Austin for their inaugural season and picked-up right where he left off. The Stars made it to the Calder Cup final in their first season under Gulutzan and made the playoffs in both seasons.
All in all, Gulutzan has made the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons as a head coach. That’s promising for an NHL team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the last three seasons.
2. He’s a known quantity
One of the aspects that Nieuwendyk admitted was a determining factor was that the organization was able to keep a close eye on Gulutzan during his time in Austin. During the interview process, outsiders can explain the type of coach and system they’d implement. For Gulutzan, he’s been excelling in a two-year test run at the helm.
Not only is he a known quantity within the Stars organization, he’s a known quantity as a head coach. Both Kirk Mueller and Peter Horachek have made a name for themselves in recent years behind NHL benches; but both has done so as assistants. There are no question marks whether Gulutzan can lead a team on his own. The only question is if he can lead this particular team at this level.
3. Relates to young players
People will debate the “players coach” vs. “disciplinarian coach” argument for the rest of time. Some will say it’s important to give players room to breathe during an 82-game season and others will say they need to be constantly pushed to maximize potential. One thing everyone can agree on is that a coach needs to have the respect of his players—no matter which coaching strategy they employ. Related, the league is increasingly becoming a younger man’s league. With the Gulutzan hiring (and the Marc Crawford firing), the Stars have acknowledged they need a coach who can coach younger players.
“The learning has changed. There’s a lot more video. Young guys just want to see everything on video. They don’t want to be yelled at and screamed at anymore. I think a guy like Gully, who is kind of new and fresh, and has played the game and is not too far from it, I think they get that.” –Brenden Morrow
Remember when it was viewed as a flaw for a coach to be young? In this case, it certainly looks like Gulutzan’s youth served as a strong selling-point for the new head coach. He may be the youngest coach in Dallas Stars history, but experience strangely isn’t much of a question-mark with the Manitoba native. Strong, trustworthy leadership should aid in Gulutzan’s transformation from second-year AHL coach to 39-year-old NHL coach.
If he wants to have success, he’s going to need to get a hold of the locker room as quickly as possible and hit the ground running. One of the great qualities of a young coach is the infusion of energy they can give to a team. Unfortunately, the drawback is that a young coach can have a hard time gaining the trust of the leaders on the team—especially if they start off the season slow. Character guys like Brendan Morrow, Stephane Robidas, and Loui Eriksson in the locker-room will go a long way towards helping Gulutzan earn control of the locker room.
4. He’s the polar opposite of Marc Crawford
If Nieuwendyk thought the team needed a new voice, they couldn’t have done a better job than hiring Gulutzan. He’s a teacher, he’s proven to maximize the potential of young players, he doesn’t yell and scream, knows how to teach defense, and gets all of his teams to play with structure. Unfortunately, Crawford featured none of those qualities.
Gulutzan also plans on spreading the ice time around a little bit more. One of the problems Crawford had with the Stars last season was leaning on certain players too much, while leaving depth players stapled to the bench. The Stars certainly got off to a good start but sputtered in the second half. If the team utilized their depth, the team may have been fresher down the stretch and could have won that final game to get into the playoffs. New players like Adam Purdy, Vern Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, and Michael Ryder will hopefully provide depth that the team hasn’t develop in recent years—at least that’s the hope for both Nieuwendyk and Gulutzan.
5. No need for recycled coaches in a new league
Something that drives fans nuts is when the same coaches are hired over and over again by different teams. If a coach wasn’t successful with their former franchise, then what makes anyone thing they’ll be successful the second, third, or fourth time around. With Crawford, GM Nieuwendyk brought in a guy who had already been with three different NHL teams. In many ways, Crawford was still trading on his Stanley Cup success with the all-star team he had in Colorado.
This time around, Nieuwendyk gave an up-and-coming coach his shot to succeed. Sure, he’s the youngest coach in Dallas Stars history. Sure, he never played in the NHL. But just like he’s never succeeded at the NHL level—he’s never failed either.
“You see guys around the League that have had success doing it. It’s a lot easier sell. Sometimes the guys that get recycled around the League, they’re not having the success. Time will tell for how it works out, but right now, we’re excited to have him here. He’s had success at every other level, so why not here?” –Brenden Morrow
Bringing in someone like Ken Hitchcock (who’s a very successful coach), would have just brought in more of the same. The team desperately needed a breath of fresh air—and a first-time coach getting a fresh start is the best way to breathe life into an organization that has been treading water for a few years.
Win or lose: this is something new.
6. Hire an AHL head coach—Everyone’s doing it
It’s fascinating that Nieuwendyk was able to go against predictable perception by doing what so many other NHL teams have been doing. Looking to the AHL for a new coach isn’t a revolutionary concept—especially in recent years. Still, with so many decent options available with ties to the Stars organization, it was a little surprising to see Nieuwendyk opt for the very capable candidate leading their own AHL franchise.
“The AHL has become THE coaching factory. With the four hirings this summer, 23 of 30 NHL coaches have been behind AHL benches at one point. And many teams are putting a great deal of emphasis on teaching for their AHL franchises. In turn, the expectations of their AHL coaches have become much higher. The value of these coaches is reflected in the salaries for the position. No longer is the development coach on the bottom rung of coaches’ salaries. In fact, this might be the one league where the coaches might make more than most players.” –John Shannon on SportsNet
It’s like Nieuwendyk is blazing his own trail with the Stars as he hires someone knew; but he did it by doing what everyone else is doing.
7. He’s cheaper
Unfortunately for the fans in Dallas, money plays a role in any decision the Stars make these days. It’s true for any organization—but it’s especially true for a team that is in the midst of being sold with debtors clamoring for their piece of the pie.
Conventional wisdom would say that the lesser-known Gulutzan would fetch a smaller salary than candidates like Ken Hitchcock or Kirk Muller. Hitchcock has been around the block a few times and has already made his mark as a successful NHL coach. And a well-compensated one, at that. On the other hand, Muller was one of the hottest coaching properties going into the offseason and it seemed like he had his choice of destinations. Clearly that didn’t come to fruition as he’s headed to Milwaukee in the AHL to further strengthen his resume.
From the outside looking in, the non-descript Gulutzan seemed like the cheapest option. It’s safe to assume that his two-year deal (with a club option for a third) fits right into what the Stars were looking for financially.
It’s not like outsiders are expecting much from the Stars this season. The Hockey News already has them slated for 13th place in the Western Conference. A quick look at an article on Defending Big D shows that Stars fans are worried about (in no particular order): scoring, defense, injuries, special teams, overall talent, ownership, and fan support.
The last thing Stars fans need is another reminder that they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2007-08 season. But the fact remains that we’re not talking about the Sharks, Red Wings, or Flyers here. This is a team that has fallen on hard times and may take a season or two to get everything sorted. There’s certainly less pressure as the Crawford era significantly lowered expectations around Big D.
For his part, Gulutzan looks to hit the ground running. He took time away after he was hired in June, but the staff got back together in Dallas in mid-August to start piecing things together. The new head coach is also picking some brains as he tries to get a handle on the biggest challenge of his young coaching career.
“I’ve spoken with quite a few coaches. Todd McLellan is a good friend of mine, the San Jose Sharks coach, him and I go way back. I’ve talked with him at length. I’ve talked with Trent Yawney, who is a former coach of the Chicago Blackhawks and is from my hometown. (St. Louis coach) Davis Payne is a good friend of mine, and I’ve kind of taken the same path as Davis, coming from the ECHL to the AHL to here, so I’ve reached out to all of those guys. Kevin Dineen (who was just hired as Florida’s new coach) is another guy I’ve used as a resource, so we’ve all kind of been sharing our ideas and thoughts of being a first-time NHL coach, with systems and all those types of things. I think that’s important. The coaching fraternity is a real good fraternity, there’s a lot of good people involved.” –Glen Gulutzan
A huge part of me loves to see the hiring because it comes back to my theory that “the cream will eventually rise to the top” in all walks of life. That may not necessarily be true—but it’s something to believe in. Throughout his career, Gulutzan has proven to be a successful coach at every level. It’s time that he got the opportunity to show what he can do at his profession’s highest level.
If he continues to succeed as he has over the last eight seasons, the Stars should be very happy with the results over the foreseeable future.