With the Dallas Stars, that person is rookie assistant coach Stu Barnes.
Barnes, 38, retired as a jack-of-all-trades utility forward last summer and began the transition into the coaching ranks, joining his former bench bosses and wielding new authority over his former teammates. For some, that could be a difficult adjustment, but it hasn’t been for Stu.
“It’s been good, it’s been interesting,” said Barnes, who skated in 1,136 regular season games and 116 more in the playoffs over the span of a 16-year NHL career, the last four-plus of which were in Dallas. “Obviously, it’s a different side of the game, but it’s been fun. It’s a good learning process, the guys on the team have been great, the coaches have been great and helped me along the way, so it’s been fun.”
“He’s done a very good job,” said Barnes’ boss, Stars head coach Dave Tippett. “One of his main chores is to work with young guys, do extra tutoring with guys who maybe aren’t playing as much and he’s really taken that to heart. He spends a lot of time on video with guys, he’s just a very good segueway between young players coming into the NHL. He’s a guy that has been through all the trials and tribulations and can really help in a lot of different ways on and off the ice with our players.”
For James Neal, who has endured plenty of ups and downs as a 21-year-old rookie, being able to rely on a former player like Barnes to help show him the ropes has had a very positive influence on his overall game.
“I didn’t know him as a teammate, but I was here in camp (before last season) and I saw the way he was with the guys and how much guys looked up to him and how much they liked him,” Neal said of Barnes. “He’s been great with me, being a younger guy - he does video with me, and does little things. Obviously, he had a long career and was an unbelievable player - you know he knows the game really well and for a young guy like me coming in, it’s real good.
“He’s not a guy to yell at you or anything, he’ll just take you aside and show you little things and do stuff with you to improve your game. He’s quiet but talks to you when you need it. He’s always the first guy to come up to you and tell you you had a good game or you need to pick things up. He’s great like that.”
“I think his adjustment has been great,” winger Steve Ott
said of Barnes. “He takes a lot of guys to the side and does a lot of video and is instrumental in helping build younger guys’ games.”
In addition to focusing on helping the Stars’ large contingent of under-25s, Barnes’ role on the coaching staff has been much like it was as a player the last several seasons - to fill in where needed and bolster any aspects of the group that need help.
“A little bit of everything,” Barnes said of his overall duties. “I’m up in the press box during games, as the eye in the sky, so kind of general observations and just basically helping where I can - helping with some face-off work, helping a little bit on the PK and things like that, so just learning the process as you go.”
And while it may be a bit odd for both Barnes and his former teammates to have to adjust their relationships a bit, by all accounts, it’s been a smooth process.
“Sure, a little bit, but I haven’t changed who I am or anything like that, I’ve been the same person or I’ve tried to be the same person I always have,” Barnes said, when asked if the transition was a little weird for him. “The guys have been great and if anybody asks an opinion or asks for help, I’ll try to do that as much as I can - just trying to help out any way I can.”
“He was a big leader for us when he played and he’s so smart, it doesn’t feel weird,” noted winger Joel Lundqvist, who was frequently Barnes’ linemate last season. “I listened a lot to him when he played and would take advice from him, so it’s not much difference. He feels like a player to me, but he’s a coach and that’s the good part of it, I think. It’s good to have someone on the coaching staff that’s real easy to talk to. He’s really done a good job.”
“I think Stu is such a respected guy,” Ott added, “now that he’s in the coaching side, the authority side of it, you just have so much respect for him already from being his teammate that it’s pretty easy to respect him as a coach the same way.”
As for his former coaches that are now his colleagues, Barnes’ integration into the coaching staff has gone very easily as well.
“He’s such a good person that he’s fit in really well that way,” Tippett said. “He’s a strong character guy, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. That’s one of the reasons why we thought he’d be a good fit on our team, because he had all the attributes that we thought he could help the group as a whole, and those are usually guys that become very good coaches.”
Besides the changing dynamics of the way he interacts with his fellow coaches and the players, for the player that becomes a coach, there are several other challenges in switching vocations. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing that he joined the Stars’ staff, which is full of former players that can help him make that adjustment smoother.
“Anybody that was a player, it’s a mindset that gets changed from a playing mindset, where a player has to make sure the individual is prepared, physically, mentally, to do his job on the team,” points out Tippett, who enjoyed an 11-year NHL career himself, “whereas from a coaching perspective, you have to keep 23 guys in mind to prepare, so that’s the biggest change right there. You just have to focus on the big group and it’s less on the mental and physical aspects of the individual as a player and more as concentration on how you can help 23 guys and not just make one guy prepared.”
“I think just not being able to go out there and do it right away,” Barnes said, identifying the toughest aspect of the career change for him so far. “I think as a player, you’re so geared to instant effort, you’re in the game and away you go, and that’s been an adjustment. But that’s part of the transition no matter what you’re doing.”
Of course, like most recently-retired players, Barnes still misses competing on the ice himself, although he does derive some comfort from remaining in such close proximity to the game.
“I think you always miss it a little bit,” admitted Barnes, who amassed 261 goals and 597 points and skated in two Stanley Cup Finals after he was the Winnipeg Jets’ first-round selection (fourth overall) in the 1989 Entry Draft. “But I feel pretty fortunate to have lasted as long as I did. By no means did I ever think I’d ever last as long as I did. It was a good run and it’s fun to stay involved.”
With all the injuries to forwards the Stars have endured this season, there have been plenty of times when the club might have been able to benefit from Barnes the player. For example, Barnes was a top-notch penalty killer and while the club finished second in the NHL in PK percentage last season with him, they have struggled at times this season and ranked 25th this year as of Wednesday.
But like the humble, team-first guy he always was when he wore a Stars uniform, Barnes laughed off the notion the squad could have used him on the ice and put the focus back on the team as a whole and his positive outlook on the club’s prospects the rest of the season.
“We’ve had a heck of a year with injuries, it’s too bad, but I think the good side for us now, it looks like we’re about to get healthy again,” Barnes said. “It’s been a good experience and hopefully, we can have a good stretch here and get in the playoffs and go from there.”