As a first-time coach in the NHL this past season, Glen Gulutzan knew there would be a learning curve, and there is little doubt that he gained wisdom in many different areas over the course of the year.
Perhaps the biggest lesson was one that may have been obvious from the beginning - the NHL is the most competitive league in the world and only the absolute best at their craft thrive in that environment.
And despite the fact that his first year ultimately ended in disappointment, there were many positive signs that point to a bright future in which Gulutzan - and the Stars - will succeed in the NHL for years to come.
“Disappointing to say the least,” Gulutzan said of how he felt missing the playoffs. “It’s a tough league, and certainly the coaching staff feels like we could have done a better job, certainly in a few areas, to get this team into the playoffs and we take that responsibility seriously. We just have to be better to get the job done, but that’s something we’ll do in the off-season, I hope.”
“He learned a lot and he’s going to grow with the team that we’re going to hopefully put together in the next few years,” added Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, the man who hired him for the AHL Texas job in 2009 and who promoted him to the big club last summer. “I think he did a tremendous job for us, I really do. And he’ll be the first to admit that he learned a lot this year, but we didn’t hire Glen Gulutzan for a one-year sample. We hired him knowing and thinking that he is going to be a long-term coach in the National Hockey League and we’re lucky to have him. He’s a bright, young guy and he experienced a lot of things this year, dealing with a lot of situations. I think he is going to grow as a coach and I think he did a great job.”
Still just 40 years old, Gulutzan became just the third rookie coach in franchise history to hit the 40-win plateau while leading the Stars to a 42-35-5 record and a 10th-place finish in the Western Conference, six points behind Los Angeles for the eighth and final playoff spot.
As heart-breaking as it was to come up just short of the post-season, Gulutzan still received rave reviews from his dressing room leaders about his first taste, in any capacity, of life in the NHL.
“I think he did great, we got off to a great start, 11-3-0, and battled,” noted captain Brenden Morrow
. “There’s things you learn along the way and I’m sure he’ll tell you that he gained some valuable experience, and for a young guy with the team, I think he did a pretty good job.”
“I think he probably learned the most this year than probably all his other years of coaching,” surmised agitating forward Steve Ott
. “This league is the tops, you’re coaching against the other best coaches and I’m sure he’s gained a lot of experience and things he’d like to correct and things he’d like to grow upon. And you’ve got to grow with the league, you’ve got to grow as a person and I think Gully did a great job for his first year and I think now has gained the respect from around the NHL for having a pretty successful year, even though we didn’t make the playoffs.”
Considering that they led the Pacific Division, temporarily occupying the West’s third seed, with just two-plus weeks remaining, the Stars’ five-game losing streak, in which they were outscored 18-6, to end the regular season was difficult to stomach.
But with new owner Tom Gaglardi on board and an impressive array of quickly-maturing young players contributing at both the NHL level and as prospects on the rise, Gulutzan sees many reasons for optimism looking forward.
“As hard of a pill it is to swallow, the reality is we were in third place, first in our division, with five games left to go,” Gulutzan pointed out. “You’re pretty close when you’re at that point. And with Tom on board here now and his vision moving forward on lots of things, in lots of different areas, without having his hands tied in those regards, will only help us. And I think if you look at our young guys that we brought up, our D, our goaltending, the way some guys had career years, like Jamie Benn
, and some of the players that we brought in a year ago. And if we try to build off of that a little bit, and I think every year, you’re trying to make your team a little bit better - we did so this year, even though we didn’t show it in the standings. And we got to continue to develop from within, and maybe move a couple of guys in here and maybe put ourselves in a position to be in first place in our division with a game to go.”
In light of that, Gulutzan admitted he didn’t think the Stars needed to change much, if anything, in the off-season in order for them to get over the hump and into the 2013 playoffs, but did state one preference.
“I don’t think we’re really that far way this year, and if we went into next year with the exact same hockey club, I know we have the ability to get in,” Gulutzan declared. “However that’s not going to happen. If I could think of one need here, it would be another top forward, in reality to complement Jamie Benn
. That would be pretty simple. I think that we had every line kind of in its place, but throughout the year, we had to take guys out of their ideal roles and put them into situations to help us - they did a real good job of that - but at the end of the day, if you could get another top-six forward in here, that would help us tremendously.”
Another key area that desperately needs upgrading, and one that Gulutzan vows to improve, is the club’s impotent power play, which finished with just 33 goals on 244 opportunities for a 13.5 percent success rate, ranking dead last in the 30-team league and the worst percentage in 44 years of franchise history.
The fact that the PP unit converted just 1-of-29 chances over the final nine games of the season only magnified just how much of a difference even a mediocre power play could have made.
“I think some of it is a philosophy - I’m sure that will be number one on Glen Gulutzan’s agenda this summer, breaking that down and analyzing,” Nieuwendyk said of the power play issues. “I know there’s a lot of discussion about Jamie Benn
not being out there as much as some other guys. There was a time period where Mike Ribeiro
and Michael Ryder
and Loui Eriksson
were kind of carrying this team, and they were having some success there. It didn’t translate on the power play for any of our guys, and we’re going to have to really dig in hard and figure out why.”
“I don’t think we need to bring in anyone for the power play,” stated Gulutzan. “I think as coaches, we could do a better job, I think the power play becomes a little bit of confidence and that got in our kitchens a little bit. We go about it a little bit differently with our power play, but we changed it four or five times. Everybody focuses a little bit on the end, but we were getting pressure from Game 1 to Game 82 and we changed it four times, and changed who played with who four times. I just think it got in our kitchen a little bit. Certainly, it’s an area where we think we could get four or five more points from having a better power play, but I think we have the personnel here to have a good power play.”
And although the Stars’ off-season has already been underway for a good two weeks, Gulutzan’s coaching staff, including Associate Coach Willie Desjardins and assistant coach Paul Jerrard, has been hard at work and plans on continuing to be throughout the summer.
“For me, usually, I’ve taken a little bit of a break (right after the season ends), and this year, we won’t, we’ve got to dig in on a few things,” said Gulutzan. “We’re asking the players to be better in certain areas, and us coaches, we have to be held to the same standard. We probably won’t work much on Fridays, but Monday through Thursday, and at nights watching other teams play (in the ongoing playoffs), we’re going to go through video here until we’re ready to go. Typically in the hockey world, July is a month off, but if we have to go through July to get what we need to get, then that’s what we’ll do. We’re committed to getting better.”
His players recognize just how much time and effort Gulutzan puts into his job and are not at all surprised to hear of his ambitious plans for the summer.
“He’s very well-prepared. You can never say that Glen is going into a game unprepared,” said defenseman Mark Fistric
. “He’s a very good coach at making sure he’s doing everything he can to prepare us for going into the game and I think that’s all, as a player, that you can ask for - a coach that’s dedicated, prepared and wants to win.”
And although he didn’t quite pile up as many W’s as he would have liked this past season, there is a lot of faith and optimism surrounding the squad heading into next season and beyond.
“You have to go through some bumps in order to move ahead,” Nieuwendyk said of his rookie coach. “I think he experienced some bumps this year, but we’re all going to push forward together.”
“I thought we had some good, honest dialogue with a lot of players, and a lot of good, positive stuff that came out of a finish that we didn’t really want,” Gulutzan said. “But we had a lot of positives, and I think everyone is going to be better for it next year. We’re fully expecting to be playing in May next year. I know that’s optimism, but that’s what we’re fully expecting, there’s no question.”