Accordingly, changes were in store on Tuesday as head coach Marc Crawford was relieved of his duties after two years at the helm, during which he fashioned a 79-60-25 record but failed to qualify for the post-season each time. It’s the first time since the 1970s, when the franchise was still in Minnesota, that the Stars have missed the playoffs three seasons in a row.
For a team that was a league powerhouse for a sustained stretch in the late 90s/early oughts, won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and returned to the Finals the next year - a squad that included current General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk - that simply isn’t good enough.
“I think our expectations are to make the playoffs and to challenge - the goal is to win a Stanley Cup every year,” said Nieuwendyk, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in ‘99. “We’re developing a culture and a mentality and that’s what we’re trying to develop. We want our players and we want our franchise to expect winning, like the Detroit Red Wings do. That, to me, is where we’re heading.”
Nieuwendyk noted that Crawford did help push the squad in the right direction, but in the end, they were unable to overcome a strong Western Conference field that saw all four of the Stars’ Pacific Division rivals make it into the top eight.
“These decisions are always tough and they don’t come easy and I’m really proud of some of the things that we accomplished over the last two seasons,” Nieuwendyk said of his team that tied the NHL record for most points by a non-playoff team. “I feel much stronger about our group where we are today than where we were at this time last year, and Marc deserves a lot of credit for that. It’s difficult when you don’t make the playoffs, because ultimately, that is the goal. The goal is to win playoff series and challenge for a Stanley Cup. I believe we are making steps towards that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough this year, even with 95 points and in an extremely tough division. This is why we have to get better and we have to be with the elite teams in the conference.”
Nieuwendyk admitted that he’d been considering the coaching change for awhile. The Stars, who led the Pacific Division at the All-Star break and held a double-digit lead over the non-playoff clubs at that point, struggled during parts of the season’s second half, including a 1-8-1 tailspin after the break and a 1-5-3 stretch in March.
“It’s something that I’ve looked at as the season progressed in the latter part,” Nieuwendyk acknowledged. “We faced some adversity, our team play fell off during those adverse times, but it wasn’t a decision that came easy. I think when the season is ultimately over, as it was a couple of days ago, you sit back and you evaluate and you start to think about where the team is at and how we can take the next step.
“Really, I have a responsibility, even though I am proud of what we accomplished and I’m proud of the players for the way they hung together, I have to make a decision on how do we get to the next level, because we have a lot of good things in place. I think that’s probably the hard thing for Marc, that he realizes that I don’t have the confidence that he is the guy for me, to get to the next level.”
The second-year GM also pointed out that the decision was not just based on the fact that the Stars, facing a chance to seize the last playoff spot if they could beat Minnesota on the final day, were unable to win when it mattered most.
“It’s very disappointing with one game on the line, that we had an opportunity to get to where we needed to go, but I don’t think we missed the playoffs just because of one game,” Nieuwendyk said of Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Wild. “This is a long season, there’s ups and downs and there’s a lot of pain and sweat that goes into it. We had dips that we couldn’t seem to get out of during the second half of the season that ultimately cost us and we needed to beat the teams that we had to in order to get to the playoffs. It wasn’t going to be a situation where we saw in the last month and a half of the season where we were going to be able to back into the playoffs, even though we had a lead in the division at one point. Teams were charging, teams were playing hard, and we faced adversity with injuries, but we weren’t able to get the job done. Give credit to the teams that did get in, but we want to be one of those teams consistently.”
Nieuwendyk made sure to stress how much he still holds Crawford, who ranks 11th on the NHL’s all-time wins list with 549 but has missed the playoffs during each of his last five years behind a bench, in high esteem for his accomplishments in Dallas.
“I think Marc is a terrific coach,” Nieuwendyk said. “I don’t know if there’s any specifics, but I think for me, it’s just, we have to look at the overall body of work. I do know that Marc, for the two years that I was around him, gave 110 percent of his energy and commitment to this team. Whether people thought it was right or wrong in the circumstances, he gave everything he had and really put a lot of heart into it, so I thank him for that.”
As for a potential replacement, Nieuwendyk indicated that it would likely be awhile before a new coach was named.
“No time frame,” Nieuwendyk noted. “I think this week is about clean-up and sending our players out with the right message. We’ll take our time with putting a coach in place. I think we’ll do our due diligence in the office and look long and hard at which direction we want to go, and we’ll have some good candidates. I think you have to do your homework and every organization is different. We’re going to take our time and make sure we get the right guy.”
While Crawford was relieved of his duties, his assistant coaches - Willie Desjardins (actually the Associate Coach), Charlie Huddy and Stu Barnes - remain on the staff for now. While Barnes’ contract expires June 30, Huddy and Desjardins each have contracts that extend into next season, although there’s always the possibility that whoever the next coach is will choose his own assistants.
“I’m going to meet with each of them over the next little while when we get through some of our player evaluations,” Nieuwendyk said of the rest of the coaching staff. “Those things will be decided in a timely manner. Obviously, with a new coach coming in, there will be some input from the new coach as well. I think we’re going to take some time here, evaluate what we just went through this season, and then we’ll make plans going forward.”
So as the players scatter for the summer and the dust settles on another frustrating, playoff-less season, Nieuwendyk is confident that the future is bright and that there will be plenty of optimism in the Metroplex as the summer moves along.
“It’s hard on me, it was a tough decision. You’re dealing with people’s lives and that’s never easy,” Nieuwendyk said. “But it’s one that I think, once we get through this clean-up period... And our players are not off the hook, either. Obviously we did some good things, but we have to get better and our players have to recognize that, but at some point, we’re going to get really positive here and we’re going to get really excited about moving forward.”