Thursday, May 2, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Fare Thee Well, GM Joe, We Hardly Knew Ye
Great GM, or The Greatest GM? You decide!
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we gave out some tough love concerning certain Stars players and coaches this season. This week, rather than bore both of you readers to tears with yet another (stunningly accurate) first-round playoff predictions column, we're going to take a look at the GM bombshell dropped earlier this week.
Yes, beloved/hated GM and Cup hero Joe Nieuwendyk has been replaced ... by a Red Wing.
While the new guy is getting nothing but praise (seriously, not a single bad thing is being said about the move ... which should instantly set off every alarm), this is not the column to investigate the Red Wings' recent abysmal record at drafting and development, or their slow slide into mediocrity, or the fact that they haven't been relevant since the Bush administration. No, we'll get to all that later this (long, long ... long) summer. But first, a little remembrance and a tear for good ol' Joe.
His four-year career was doomed from the start. He had no owner, no money, a team of aging and overpaid vets who couldn't get it up for the playoffs, and a bottom-three farm system with zero decent prospects.
But hey?--who doesn't love a challenge? So Newy did some very good things, some decent things, some meh things, and some abysmally awful things in trying to both rebuild the franchise from scratch while also nominally remaining competitive enough to at least make the playoffs.
Here's a brief rundown of his biggest moves as GM.
#1. Restocking the Farm System: When GM Joe arrived, Dallas' best defensive prospects were Ivan Vishnevskiy and Trevor Ludwig. Their best forward prospects were Raymond Sawada and Sergei Korostin. If any of those names ring a bell, it is because you are a professional scout for the Dallas Stars.
Since Newy took over drafting and development, the farm system has been re-stocked from top to bottom. Alex Chiasson, a prospect in name only, was Newy's second-ever draft pick and repaid his GM by scoring six goals in his first six NHL games. Brett Ritchie put up nearly a goal-a-game pace in the minors last season, something no Stars prospect has done since Jamie Benn. Mattej Stransky looks to be an absolute beast at wing in two years.
More impressively has been Newy's commitment to finding quality defensemen. Right now some twelve or thirteen d-men are clogging up the Texas Stars' roster, including the Ivan Drago-esque Jamie Oleksiak, solid stay-at-home d-man Patrick Nemeth, offensive dynamos Joe Morrow, Kevin Connauton and Ludwig Bystrom, and potential future Stars captain material Cameron Gaunce. Did I miss anybody? Probably. It's likely more than one of these guys gets shipped off in a trade (notGauncenotGauncenotGaunce), but that's a luxury Dallas has never once had in franchise history.
#2. The Lehtonen Trade: Ever since the retirement of franchise hero Sergei Zubov, Stars fans have desperately clung to any hope of finding the Next One. So when Dallas drafted Ivan Vishnevskiy 27th overall in the 2006 draft, it was natural to want to see this kid play as soon as possible.
With every passing season, it was clearer and clearer that Vish was not NHL material, much less anything approaching Zubovian. So Newy flipped him straight-up to Atlanta (remember them? They sucked) for former #2 overall pick and franchise goalie Kari Lehtonen. Initial fan reaction was angry, but you'd be hard pressed to find a critic of the trade now. Unless you live in Atlanta and still follow hockey for some reason.
#3. Finding Undrafted Gems: Anytime you find an undrafted, unheralded guy like Brenden Dillon who, in the course of his rookie season, becomes your de facto #1 guy it's a huge win for your reputation as a talent evaluator. Dillon was on nobody but Dallas' radar in 2010, with just 12 assists and a -12 in 67 games for the Thunderbirds. GM Joe signed him, and Dillon exploded with 59 points in 72 games for the same team. Two years later, he's pairing with Robidas and Goligoski on our top lines, taking the toughest minutes and zone starts and doing an incredible job moving the puck up ice. If you don't like that story, we just can't be friends anymore.
Other undrafted finds have been good, even if not quite at the Dillon-level of amazing. Matt Fraser, another undrafted dude signed in 2010, has 70 goals in the last two seasons in the AHL and deserves a real shot at a top-six spot in the big league. Undrafted Antoine Roussel kicked around in the minors until he was picked up by Dallas, immediately filling in the Steve Ott "agitator/fighter who scores" role with 7 goals and 14 points in 39 games.
#4. The Ribeiro Trade: It's tough to trade a point-a-game #1 center, even if said center had to be spoonfed by Loui Eriksson and quarterbacked the worst powerplay the NHL had seen since the mid-70s. But Ribs had just one year left on his contract, was not getting any younger and was certainly not getting any more coachable, so Newy sent him packing to Washington for Cody Eakin and a second. At the time, Stars fans --a fickle lot-- were incensed. A year later, Eakin has proven to be lights-out fantastic as a third-line center, and more than passable as a second line center with 24 points in 48 games and one more powerplay goal (3) than Ribs had in 74 games last season (2). All this, with defensive ability and a wildly entertaining north-south speed game to boot.
The second round pick became ultra-speedy center Mike Winther, who had a decent year with 50 points in 68 games in the WHL.
#5. Dumping the Old Guard: Whether it was Turco, Modano or Morrow, Newy had some tough decisions to make about his rapidly-fading veterans... and made them in the face of fan (those guys again!) opposition. Many fans were incensed that Modano was not given a contract in 2010, apparently thinking that what Modano did in 1994 is good enough to justify a roster spot 15 years later. Turco, too, was at the end of his career, and his athleticism was failing him at key moments in games. Newy chunked 'em both out the door. While both went on to other NHL teams, neither was more than a shell of their former glory, and were both in the announcer booth before long. GMs rarely have to make that many unpopular decisions in a short period of time, but GM Joe proved he wasn't going to be held hostage by guys struggling to fill fourth line roles.
#1. Head Coaching: If Newy's firing can be justified on just one thing, it's his inability to evaluate coaching talent. Firing Dave Tippett wasn't a bad move --the vets had completely tuned him out by that point, and his postseason record continues to unimpress-- but hiring Marc Crawford set the team back years. For all his faults, at least Tippett had a system and stuck with it: Crawford seemed to be utterly lost, and his teams showed it. Gulutzan was a decent hire for a lot of reasons --particularly the development of young talent-- but being a nice guy with open lines of communication doesn't necessarily translate into being a good NHL head coach. Gully was hamstrung by vets such as Morrow, Ribeiro and Jagr, who paid lip service and nothing more to the style of play he wanted. Gulutzan's teams always failed in big games late in the season, and there was a point right before the 2013 trade deadline where Gully physically looked ready to just give up on the team. He got the team he wanted for two weeks after the deadline, but once they restored control of their own destiny, old habits snuck in once again and the team failed. Again. Newy's most important job is choosing a head coach, and he went 0-for-2 in spectacular fashion.
#2. Goalie Logjam: Having a lot of goaltending prospects in the pipeline is a good thing, particularly as when Newy took over the top prospect in the system was Richard Bachman. Newy drafted American Hero Jack Campbell, traded for Lehtonen and signed undrafted Swedish goaltender Christopher Nilstorp. Things were looking good.
Then, inexplicably, with three NHL-ready goaltenders in the AHL Newy signed Lehtonen to a huge long-term contract. Lehtonen's been excellent, but the dollars are hardly justified by his statistics. Even weirder, the term --$5.9 million a year until 2018-- essentially means Campbell will have to wait until he's 26 before he inherits the starting role. This is a guy, along with Nilstorp, who just backstopped the Texas Stars to the #1 overall spot in the AHL in his first full professional season. Of all of Newy's moves, this signing makes the least amount of sense on any level.
#3. The Benn Holdout: While the lockout raged, Future Face of the Franchise Jamie Benn was an unsigned RFA. No problem, all this extra time should actually help matters, as the team can iron out exactly what it will take to make everyone happy.
Then the lockout ended, then the joke of a training camp started, then the regular season began, then the Stars began losing games by one goal as their PPG center sat at home... and THEN the Stars signed Benn. Those lost points counted just as much as the ones they gave away freely at the end of the season, and the lack of urgency (see also: keeping NHL-ready prospects buried in the minors for years) may have doomed Nieuwendyk more than we know.
#4. The Glennie Pick: Drafting is a total crapshoot, but Newy's first draft pick looks especially curious four years later. Glennie was a scoring beast at the time, with 138 points in 116 games in the WHL. He was a "reach" with the 8th overall pick, and there's some question as to whether Newy had any input on this pick, but regardless it's his name on the pick whether he really wanted Glennie or not. The two years following that, Glennie actually increased his scoring output, putting up 180 points in just 136 games, including 67 goals. But once he got promoted to the AHL, something happened. The scoring dried up: Glennie's scored just 51 points in 111 AHL games. His body broke down, with a series of injuries preventing him from completing even one full season at the pro level. And his pedigree seems to have completely vanished. Despite being the 8th overall pick, Glennie doesn't even crack the list of top 15 Stars' prospects anymore, and has been relegated to third-line center duties in Austin. While he still occasionally scores huge goals, is very fast and has added a highly physical element to his game, he hardly seems like first-round material, and is one of just three players selected in that (admittedly weak) 2009 first round with one or fewer games under his belt. Newy's picks since then have been much improved and have progressed up the development ladder nicely. Glennie... not so much, although he may very well turn out to be a first-rate third line checking center sometime in the future.
#5. The Fistric Trade: Next to nothing has been written about the effect of trading a third-pair d-man for a 3rd rounder, but the on-ice results have been inescapable. Fistric was a former 1st round pick who should have been selected two rounds later, a hulking behemoth who delivered some of the hardest hits in the NHL. He was never going to be remotely passable offensively, but his defensive ability --i.e., keeping the puck out of his own net, the primary requirement for a defender-- was far and away the best on the team. His GA/60 caused nearly everyone who looked at it to double-take to make sure they weren't seeing some weird statistical anomaly. Sure, he was clogging up a roster spot that needed to be freed up for a rookie, but Fistric was one solid defensive sunuvabeesh.
And then we traded him to Edmonton, where he got even better. Meanwhile, Dallas' ridiculous streak of 80+ games with at least a point when leading after two was ended immediately after the trade, as the Stars' defense simply could not hold on to a lead when it mattered most. While Edmonton didn't make the playoffs either, Fistric did his part in bringing up their joke-of-the-NHL defense up to mediocrity. Dallas could've used a crease-clearing monster in the third periods of games, and that loss undoubtedly cost them huge points throughout the season.
Jury's Still Out
#1. The Goligoski-for-Neal Trade: While the lazy-a**ed hockey media uses this trade as an classic example of a one-sided trade, they could not possibly be more wrong. James Neal was, is, and forever will be a 20-25 goal scorer. Alex Goligoski is a 45-50 point defenseman. Both teams were dealing from positions of strength: the Stars had Benn coming right up behind Neal, and with Neal fading in the second half of the season once again (despite having Brad Richards as his center), and a desperate need for a puck-moving defenseman, Newy pulled the trigger on the trade. Pittsburgh, from their perspective, had Letang and a few more offensive d-men in the minors, and desperately needed a triggerman for Crosby and/or Malkin. The trade actually helped both teams tremendously: Neal blossomed from a 25-goal scorer with Richards to a 40-goal scorer with Malkin, while Goligoski finished last season as the third-highest scoring defenseman in the Western Conference. Of course, both players have serious downsides: Goligoski can't defend and is easily knocked off the puck (which is why Dillon works so well as his defense partner (and why pairing Gogo with Fistric at the beginning of the 2011-12 season worked out so well for both guys)). Meanwhile, when Malkin is injured, Neal reverts to a goal-every-ten-games guy, which translates to 8 goals a season for you mathematically-challenged Pens fans. Both players are signed for half a decade with their current teams, which bodes better for Goligoski than for Neal, as Goligoski creates his own offense while Neal may see his center leave for bigger riches elsewhere after 2014. Anyone who calls this a lopsided trade in favor of the Penguins clearly doesn't know how hockey works.
#2. The Ryder-for-Cole Trade: Ryder was an excellent signing for Newy last season, potting 35 goals and becoming the sneaky sniper we haven't had since Brett Hull. Then something odd happened: a day after Ryder was bumped down to the third line (and responded with three assists), he was traded for fellow 2012 35-goal scorer Erik Cole... along with a 3rd rounder. Now, had this trade been made in the summer --swapping 35 goal scorers, with a pick compensating for the extra contract year-- it would have been fine. Intriguing, but acceptable. As it is, however, Ryder continued to score at a high level while Cole did not. Ryder finished 2013 with 16 goals and 35 points, while Cole finished with 9 goals and 13 points. Obviously Ryder was a UFA after this season, so some team --definitely not Montreal-- will pay him a ridiculous amount of money for his goal-scoring abilities this summer. Cole, on the other hand, has a year left and seems to have clicked on a hybrid third line/second powerplay unit with Vern Fiddler and Eric Nystrom. We'll have to wait and see how Cole handles himself next season before making a final judgement on this trade.
#3. Jack Campbell: Conventional wisdom says never, ever draft a goalie in the first round. When the Stars selected Campbell with the 11th overall pick, many fans were incensed that we didn't select Cam Fowler instead (yes, the same Cam Fowler who was the single worst player in the entire NHL, altho he is getting slightly less terrible lately). Like Glennie, Campbell was a "reach," and despite his impressive showing beating Canada in the WJCs, he'd have to go 60-0-0 with a 0.02 GAA to impress his critics, who to this day use his name as a punchline. Still, Campbell seems to be a decent pick: while his career in the OHL was mediocre, his time in the AHL has been good, overcoming a very slow start to post a 19-13-3 record with the top team in the AHL. He's currently 1B to Nilstorp's 1A on the depth chart (again, proving that goalies shouldn't be drafted early), but his upside is tremendous. Can't make a ruling on this one for at least another 4-5 years, although how Campbell handles himself in his second full pro season will go a long way towards forming our opinions.
All in all, Nieuwendyk's strengths were drafting, development and having the cajones to make unpopular decisions. His actions at the trade deadline --stockpiling defensive prospects and high picks-- despite pretty much knowing that he would be fired show a lot of character, as most GMs would have made desperation trades and sold off assets to protect their own jobs. Outside of the first round, Newy's player evaluation skills are undoubtedly top-notch, and he won't be out of a GM position for very long.
On the other hand, Nieuwendyk's weaknesses are readily apparent. Patience is a virtue, but the NHL is all about winning now, and the Stars have had the look of a team with a "eh, we'll get it later" mentality for too long. Newy's lack of management experience became obvious in his head coaching hires --the primary skill of a great organizational leader is the ability to delegate, and that means being able to find other leaders to delegate to. Crawford and Gulutzan don't fit that bill, for very different reasons. Finally, there were some moments where Newy's passive, overly-patient Zen attitude cost him: the inexplicable Lehtonen contract and the Benn holdout were two examples among many.
Final Grade: B