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He may be young, but Gulutzan is well-prepared for first NHL job

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

What Glen Gulutzan lacks in NHL experience, the 39-year-old new head coach of the Dallas Stars more than makes up for with his demeanor on the bench, his coaching philosophy and ability to get the most out of his players, among several other impressive attributes.

It was those top-notch qualities, combined with his inside knowledge of players within the organization from his two years coaching the AHL Texas Stars, that gave Gulutzan the edge over more experienced candidates like former Stars Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, Montreal assistant coach (and former Dallas player) Kirk Muller, and Nashville assistant Peter Horachek.

In the end, it was a pretty easy decision for Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk to make.

“The search for exactly the right coach to take this group to the next level was thorough and thoughtful,” Nieuwendyk noted at the club’s press conference Monday that formally introduced Gulutzan as the franchise’s 21st head coach. “We interviewed several qualified candidates and although we were impressed with all of them, one candidate stood out. I’ve had a chance to observe Glen Gulutzan pretty closely over the past couple of seasons. I love the job he has done with our Texas Stars in the American Hockey League. He is a talented, smart, prepared, composed coach. He has always received premium efforts from his players individually and his team as a whole. The big reason for the success of our AHL affiliate is because of his leadership and guidance.

“He and I have had very productive discussions over the past couple of seasons and more intensely over the past couple of weeks during the interview process. I believe that he will be a tremendous coach in the NHL and I’m excited that he’s going to be doing it right here in Dallas.”

Someone who has worked even closer with Gulutzan over the past two seasons with the organization’s AHL affiliate, located just three hours away in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, is Scott White, who doubles as Dallas’ Director of Minor League Operations and as Texas GM, and he is very confident Gulutzan is the man for the job.

“He’s a composed guy, he’s a prepared guy,” said White, who has been with the organization since 2005. “Players play for him and he gives them an opportunity, when he presents a way to play, to win and I think that’s good. And more importantly, he’s a good human being, a good family man, and I think that culminates in him being a good coach. He’s a good teacher and he’s the right fit and I’m really happy for him. He’s ready, he can handle it.”

Further evidence of the thorough manner in which Gulutzan has prepared himself for the job is that he has taken some time to reach out to several other men who have also made the jump from the AHL to a first-time NHL coach and solicited their advice.

“I’ve spoken with quite a few coaches,” Gulutzan revealed. “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.”

Additionally, it’s pretty clear that Gulutzan’s track record within the organization the past two years, which followed six as coach/GM of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers, gave him an advantage over the other candidates, both due to his familiarity with the team’s players and because he had already established a working relationship with Nieuwendyk during that time.

The way Gulutzan helped lead Texas to the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals in 2010, and in securing another playoff spot this past season with less talent, was certainly a factor. Plus, receiving a key endorsement by one of the Stars’ most important young players didn’t hurt, either.

“I think Glen was high on our list from Day One, from before the interview process even started, but we wanted to go through it and really measure him against some other candidates that we felt were very high on our list as well,” Nieuwendyk explained.  “And when we had him in there and we threw a lot of the tough questions at him, he answered them all with flying colors. Just listening to him, I think you get a sense of how composed he will be.  Really, we’ve been able to watch him for two years, and I think that was a big factor. Jamie Benn, one of our good, young players, played for Glen in the AHL playoffs the year before when they went on a run to the Calder Cup Final and had rave reviews about him, so that all factored in. And other than that, just watching him and his bench demeanor, the way he controls things, the adjustments he makes during the game, have all been pretty impressive.”

“Certainly it helps,” Gulutzan said of his connection to the younger Stars. “Having coached those guys at the AHL level and watching their transformation and now getting them up here - if you’re there with them at the grass roots, you know them as a player, so if you know their past, I think it’s easier to relate with them and you understand their strengths and weaknesses. So I think that experience going forward is going to be valuable, with guys like Tomas (Vincour), and Bennie and (Philip) Larsen and those types of players.”
Even veteran players who may have had limited exposure to Gulutzan are happy with the hiring, as utility forward Toby Petersen pointed out on Monday.

“It’s all exciting. Obviously, as players, we were all anxious to see how it would play out and who would get hired,” remarked Petersen, who scored two shorthanded goals and six points in 60 games in 2010-11. “We were reading the papers just like everyone else was and seeing who the finalists were, and when Gully was announced, I was personally very excited. My experiences with him were minimal. He ran a few practices last year at training camp and I played one game with him (for Texas) this year when I was on injury rehab, but in talking with other players who have played for him, before he was even up for the job, the players commented on what a great teacher he was, how calm he is, how patient he is, and those are great attributes that I think will come into play at this level.”

Fitting in with Nieuwendyk’s previously-stated objective of constructing a team that is hard to play against, Gulutzan echoed that sentiment when discussing his approach to coaching.

“I believe in three things - you need to be hard to play against, you need to have good defensive structure, and you need to have fun playing the game,” Gulutzan said. “My philosophy is pretty simple. We’re going to have some non-negotiable items that are going to make us hard to play against. Hard work is hard to play against. Good-structured teams are hard to play against. And we’re going to enjoy coming to the rink, because that’s huge. It’s an 82-game schedule, it’s a grind and these athletes put in a lot of time and effort and wear and tear, so you have to enjoy coming to the rink. You get more out of an athlete that way than if it’s some place you don’t want to go, like any work environment. Those are probably the biggest things.”

But while his teams have always been well-disciplined defensively, he insists that he also promotes an up-tempo offense as well.

“We want to be a hard-to-play-against, two-way hockey club,” Gulutzan said. “I’ve read some articles about defensive hockey and people get scared (that it will be boring) - we don’t trap, we don’t sit back, we don’t watch and wait. I think you’re just a recipe for disaster if you become one of those teams. Today’s NHL is fast - it’s young guys, it’s skilled players and you have to utilize those talents. So we’re going to play a two-way game. We’re going to be a hard fore-checking team, we’re going to be a hard back-checking team, we’re going to have good structure in the defensive zone, and at the end of the day, that boils down to being hard to play against.”

He also indicated that he continually adjusts his teams’ playing style to the talent at his disposal, and that his more offensively-skilled Dallas team in 2011-12 might look a little different than his AHL squad this past season. The Texas Stars ranked 26th in the AHL in offense but were sixth defensively, as Gulutzan guided them to a 41-29-10 record and a spot in the playoffs.

“Over the last nine years of coaching, I’ve had different types of teams,” Gulutzan noted. “In Austin, we had a team that could grind you down in my first year, and last year, we weren’t as heavy or physical, so we had to adapt. So whatever pieces that Joe puts in place, we’ll make sure we’re adapting to that style and if we can play a heavy game, we’ll certainly play it.”

“When you went down there and watched the Texas Stars and you talked to people around the American Hockey League,” Nieuwendyk said, “they were always known as a hard-working, two-way team, and that does become tough to play against. The one thing we have here, and it’s not disrespectful to the players we have in Austin, but we have a lot of high-end talent. So if we can have that structure, have that two-way play, with the type of skill that we have here - because there’s a lot of teams in the National Hockey League that would like to have some of the skill that we have - I think Glen is the right guy to put it all together.”

As the Stars hope to bounce back next season and return to the playoffs following a three-year absence, Gulutzan remains confident that both he and the club are ready to take that step together.
“I believe that this organization is very poised to become a great organization once again,” Gulutzan declared. “There’s no question throughout the league, with the 95 points they achieved, that the perception is that all the building blocks are here in Dallas. The one thing that I noticed about this group last year is the character that is in that locker room, and when you watch their games from last year, you could see the passion they had playing for each other and that’s a big step. Some coaches have to come into a team and try to bring the guys together. I think with our leadership core, that’s probably one thing I won’t have to do as much. You can’t win, at any level in my philosophy, unless your character guys are really good. And if you’ve got good character and a good backbone, which I know we have here, I know that, you’re poised a little bit (for success). That’s what makes me excited, because I know there’s a lot of character in that locker room.”

Now there’s plenty of it behind the bench, too.

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