Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk failed his first test this week. Not in the sense that swapping head coach Dave Tippett out for Marc Crawford is a disastrous decision for the franchise -- history will judge that -- but in the sense that the Stars were caught with their pants around their ankles on announcing it.
TSN had the story in the early evening on Tuesday. The genie somehow escaped the bottle. Yet Nieuwendyk was in full-on "no comment" mode for the rest of the day's news cycle before the team made the official announcement this morning. To put this thing in Texas terms: When you can slow-roast a hog in the time between news breaking and the team reacting, someone done muss'd up.
(UPDATE: Mike Heika reveals this after publishing an interview with Tippett: "One of the reasons I couldn't report the news on Wednesday was because Tippett asked Joe Nieuwendyk to wait a day to release the news, and Nieuwendyk said he would honor that wish. As such, he made everyone in the organization promise that they would say anything. Our sourcing policy is a source has to agree to be a source, and nobody would meet that standard." Hey, it's honorable; but hopefully this is a lesson for Nieuwendyk that nothing is air-tight when it comes to sports news.)
That's neither here nor there when it comes to this move behind the bench, as the Stars proudly hire "the 16th winningest coach in NHL history" as the 20th head coach in franchise history.
From the PR standpoint, the firing of Tippett seems to have its champions and its critics; the hasty hiring of Marc Crawford, however, is getting panned by the majority of Dallas fans as both (a) Nieuwendyk's hurried attempt to put his stamp on the team and (b) choosing the wrong guy to put the team back into contention.
The fan reaction on Andrew's Stars Page and the Dallas Stars Blog is decidedly anti-Crawford, but these are engaged and Web-savvy fans we're talking about here; how many general Dallas hockey loyalists are going to cite the Bertuzzi incident as evidence Crawford's a bad fit?
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The justification from the Stars:
"I am very excited that we have been able to secure Marc Crawford as head coach of the Dallas Stars," Nieuwendyk said. "Marc is a winner with extensive experience in this league, and I am confident he will get the most out of our hockey club. I look forward to working with him as we prepare for the 2009-10 season and beyond. Dave Tippett did a very good job in his six seasons here with the Stars, however it was my feeling that our team needed a new direction moving forward."
That last line is in keeping with Nieuwendyk's philosophy from Day One on the gig. He's there for sweeping change, not for incremental tweaks. You're either models of stability or stagnation in the NHL, and owner Tom Hicks felt it was the latter: "We've lost a little of our edge."
(Ironic, then, that decisions to bring back that edge -- Brett Hull as a co-GM, Sean Avery as a pain in the ass with a long-term deal -- flopped.)
So now it's Crawford, in to bring back the edge. Helene Elliott's great analysis of Crawford after his firing with the Los Angeles Kings leads one to believe that his lack of patience and ability to manage a veteran core of players fits well with what Nieuwendyk is looking for in a coach. The Kings were a bad fit; Dallas is a much better one for his temperament.
Still doesn't change the fact that this is a coach who hasn't made the postseason since 2004.
He is known for combining explosive offense with solid defense, which is the direction I see Nieuwendyk wanting to take this team in the next few seasons (and one that Les Jackson had already set the Stars up for). Of all the available coaches, I couldn't fault the Stars for wanting Crawford.
That being said, while it's easy to say Crawford is the best of the available bunch it's certainly not easy to say he's a step up from the coach he would be replacing. Dave Tippett has the second best winning percentage in the NHL over the past six seasons, and that is going to be tough to live up to.
True, but as Stop Hitting Robidas (god we love that name) writes, Tippett's success may have been waning despite a boatload of mitigating circumstances last season:
Supporters of Tippett can point to many reasons to keep him around. There's the classic "but the injuries!" cry, the "winningest coach!" argument, and the "but the 07-08 season ended so strongly!"
However, you might recall that before there were injuries, the team struggled right out of training camp. They had a losing preseason record, hit the regular season flopping around pitifully instead of riding their momentum from the playoff run, and the top lines weren't clicking. Avery became the Avery Issue, leading people to wonder if Tippett was too much of a players-coach to keep him in line. Then there was the mismanagement of the goalie situation, and some questionable instances towards the end of the season when he played Neal and benched Brunnstrom.
Tippett probably deserved another season and the chance to coach whatever team Nieuwendyk creates for him. But that may have just delayed the inevitable, because the speed of this thing is an indication that Nieuwendyk wanted a different kind of man behind the bench.
Crawford, the former Kings, Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks coach, is certainly different. For Nieuwendyk's sake, he needs to be better, too. The worst thing for the rookie GM would be to have Tippett resurface somewhere else soon and find success while Crawford scowls at Marty Turco's five hole.