But for Glen Gulutzan, who at 39 is the youngest coach in Dallas Stars history, it is more a testament to how impressively he performed at his previous two coaching jobs and the success he’s enjoyed winning games and in developing players.
As he embarks on his biggest challenge yet, both he and Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk were thrilled about the club’s future under his guidance.
“Obviously, as a guy with his first chance to coach in the NHL, it’s extremely exciting,” said Gulutzan, who spent the previous two years with the Stars’ AHL affiliate based just outside Austin. “I’m extremely excited to be a part of the organization. Having coached Jamie Benn
for awhile and seeing some of the players here, obviously, it’s a great opportunity for a young coach and I’m willing to bring work ethic and a real good team structured game and I think we can do great things.”
“It’s an exciting day for us,” Nieuwendyk said on Friday. “When we went through this process at the end of the season, I think Glen was already high on our list, but we went through a thorough search and really had some good candidates that were impressive and it made the decision even tougher. But one of the things, to be honest with you, going through the process that, Glen was just as impressive to me and obviously more impressive than a lot of those guys, and we knew him, but just to re-confirm that he’s the right guy for the job and we couldn’t be happier.”
No one is concerned about his lack of NHL experience, especially since there have been a number of high-profile first-time coaches recently that have enjoyed considerable success right off the bat.
Gulutzan hopes to follow in the footsteps of men like Guy Boucher, who was hired out of AHL Hamilton before this past season and subsequently led Tampa Bay to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and Dan Bylsma, who was promoted from Pittsburgh’s AHL squad in 2008-09 and promptly won the Stanley Cup there. Bruce Boudreau in Washington, who won the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year after his promotion from AHL Hershey in 2007, is another example.
“I think it is a trend,” Nieuwendyk acknowledged. “I think obviously, the success of Danny Bylsma and Guy Boucher last year in his first year out of the American Hockey League are examples of that, but the league has gotten younger. I think maybe that is a factor, maybe these young coaches that are innovative have a good relationship with those young players. But regardless of that, we have a young coach that we feel is going to be our leader and that’s where his strengths lie. Even though he’s young, he has a relationship with our guys and they’re certainly going to know who’s in charge and they’ll play hard for him.”
Gulutzan is already familiar with a number of Stars, including young forward Jamie Benn
, and is ready to earn the respect of the more established players he hasn’t yet coached.
“I think with every player, especially the veteran players, there is some selling that has to go on,” admits Gulutzan, who becomes the franchise’s 21st coach, and the 19th hired with no prior NHL head coaching experience. “I think first and foremost, if you can show the veteran players that what you’re trying to do is going to benefit them and in turn it will benefit the team as a whole, I think that’s your first point in selling it. If they can truly believe that you’re trying to help them, then I think that everyone can grow from those types of relationships. There’s going to be selling to everyone, but the easiest selling plan is to have success and that’s what makes everybody buy in.”
His general coaching approach stresses a little bit of everything, zeroing in on defensive awareness, puck possession and a fast-paced offense.
“The first things that you want as a coach are some non-negotiable items as the backbone of your team and the way I describe my philosophy is that I would like to be a two-way hockey club,” Gulutzan said. “I think people get a little scared when coaches talk about defensive hockey, but defensive hockey is really hard-to-play-against hockey where you’re possessing the puck, you’ll work real hard to get it, work real hard to get it back and you’ll be real structured in your defensive zone when the other team’s attacking. I think the best way to describe my philosophy is a hard two-way game that has some tempo. You’ve got to be able to play a little bit of both.”
His teams at AHL Texas certainly held their own defensively, and that translated to the standings, as Gulutzan compiled an 87-56-17 record (for a .597 points percentage) in two years there, finishing second in the league with 198 goals against in 2010 and sixth this past year with 210. Of course, Gulutzan’s ability to guide the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup Finals in 2010 - the first time a Dallas top-level farm squad advanced that far in the playoffs, was a big plus for the organization.
As much as the long playoff run was a great learning experience that likely accelerated the development of young Stars like Benn, Aaron Gagnon and Travis Morin
, it also had a profound impact on Gulutzan’s growth as a coach.
“That was huge,” said Gulutzan of his first year as an AHL coach, which followed six seasons as coach/GM of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. “I look back at my development as a coach in the AHL, and when I first started out going against guys like Kevin Constantine and Don Lever, guys who had spent some time in the NHL, I can remember going through the regular season and going, ‘Boy, did I learn a lot.’ As the playoffs went on, we won our first round against Rockford and Bill Peters who had won a Memorial Cup, and then the second round against Don Lever, who has been around for a while and won a (Calder) Cup in Hamilton, and then Guy Boucher and the Hamilton Bulldogs, and getting past those two Game 7s - it was almost like a second season rolled into one.
“I thought I grew more in the playoffs than I did in the regular season, and I thought the regular season was a good growth. I almost felt like I got two seasons in one and as I approached the next season, I felt a lot more confidence as a coach and started to try to get out of my comfort zone coaching with new ideas. I thought it was a great learning experience.”
That Gulutzan outshined such qualified candidates as former Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock, Montreal assistant coach (and former Star) Kirk Muller, and Nashville assistant Peter Horachek, just three years removed from the ECHL further demonstrates just how much he’s progressed and how strong his core qualities are.
“I think it’s just the overall package,” Nieuwendyk said of what made Gulutzan his top choice. “When you’re able to follow our farm team over the last couple of years as close as we have and to see the style of play that they have, and with no disrespect to the players that we have there, but we haven’t provided Glen with maybe some of the high-end talent that some other AHL teams have and he’s been able to manufacture a structure and a style of play that has been ultra-competitive at the AHL level.
“It’s his organizational skills, it’s his ability to communicate, his bench demeanor. It’s the overall package that’s going to translate into positive things for our group here. Even though Glen is young and hasn’t coached a game in the National Hockey League, his strengths are exactly what I feel this team needs - the structure, the style of play. I guess the bottom line is he just gets it. He understands how to mesh players and get the most out of their abilities. I think that’s going to translate well to our players. He was just the right guy for the job.”
As for his relatively quick rise through the different tiers of professional hockey, Gulutzan has enjoyed the ride and appreciates the support that his wife Nicole and four children (son Landen and daughters Emma, Brielle and Grace) have given him at each step along the way.
“I’ll always be really thankful for Las Vegas and Charles Davenport for giving me the opportunity to start my coaching career there,” said Gulutzan, who played six years for the WCHL’s Fresno Falcons (before that league was absorbed by the ECHL), spending the last four, 1999-2003, as a playing assistant coach before landing the job with Las Vegas. “I think when we look back, I’m kind of in the same position today than I was as a 31-year-old coach/GM in Las Vegas - it’s time to start out and everyone needs that chance. Obviously, my family is very important to me, and it’s been a smooth journey as far as that goes. We enjoyed our time in Las Vegas, I got to develop myself as a coach through some hard-knock lessons and some success. As the journey progressed, I feel I got into a real good situation (in Texas) with Joe, Les Jackson and the Dallas organization and things are very comfortable on those fronts. I enjoyed myself in Vegas, I loved Austin and this is the next step.”
And at the end of the day, Gulutzan’s ultimate objective is the same as everyone else’s associated with the Stars - to win, and he’s optimistic they can do that.
“If you look at the pieces, everyone in the hockey world knows the pieces are here,” Gulutzan said. “The goaltending, the skill up front in Jamie Benn
, Mike Ribeiro
, Brenden Morrow
, Loui Eriksson
, Steve Ott
, just to mention a few. I think all the pieces are here, we just have to add to it. So from an outsider looking in, this is a team, with new ownership on the horizon, that could become a very good team again.”