Nieuwendyk's goal: Capture old magic
NHL Hall of Famer has a template for Stars' success -- his 1999 Stanley Cup team
FRISCO, Texas -- Take a walk around the Stars' practice facility in Frisco and you won't have much trouble finding photos of the smiling faces of a younger Joe Nieuwendyk and Eddie Belfour.
The two newest inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame are in the numerous team pictures from the 1999 Stars team scattered about Dr Pepper StarCenter, complete with the gleaming Stanley Cup resting comfortably on Reunion Arena ice.
That team is the one by which all other Dallas Stars squads are measured.
Three players from that team are now in the Hall of Fame as Nieuwendyk and Belfour were selected on Tuesday, joining current member Brett Hull. The general manager and architect of that team, Bob Gainey, is in the Hall as well. Mike Modano, the longtime face of the franchise, is a no-brainer as soon as he's eligible. You could make strong cases for Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and even Guy Carbonneau. Pat Verbeek could probably be in the discussion, too.
"It was special," Nieuwendyk said Tuesday. "I think we all realized it after having gone through those years and then when the band broke up, we knew it was truly special."
Nieuwendyk has a particular appreciation for that. He won three Stanley Cups, a gold medal in the Olympics and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1999. Now, the Stars general manager is trying to recapture that magic again for the franchise.
"I think there is a very real feeling that people always want to talk about 1999 and that team," Nieuwendyk said. "It was such a unique time. Everybody wants that back. Those are the times you strive for again."
To get there, the GM is starting with a young core that can learn and grow together. As much as the 1999 team is remembered for the critical component that veterans played in its success, that team doesn't win a Cup without the infusion of youth from players like Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Lehtinen and Modano, among others.
The biggest difference back then was that there was no salary cap and owner Tom Hicks was willing to spend money to help bring in the additional talent needed to win. And any hockey team serious about winning the Stanley Cup has to have solid goaltending. That's what Belfour provided. He signed as a free agent prior the 1997-98 season and had an immediate impact. He helped Dallas to the Western Conference Finals that season and then onto the Stanley Cup in 1999 and the Stanley Cup Finals in 2000. He beat Patrick Roy in critical games in 1999 and 2000.
Belfour also made headlines off the ice, including the infamous night at a local Dallas hotel where he allegedly offered police officers $1 billion to keep him out of jail. But when it came to playing between the pipes, Belfour was one of the greats. He's third all-time in wins behind Martin Brodeur and Roy.
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"I played with a lot of good goaltenders in my career, but there was something ultra-unique about him," Nieuwendyk said. "He took his job very seriously and competed at a high level and we knew he'd be ready to play. If it was a one-game showdown, I'd want Eddie in the net."
Nieuwendyk knows he isn't going to find another Belfour any time soon. But one of his first major trades as Stars general manager was obtaining Kari Lehtonen from Atlanta prior to the trade deadline last season. Nieuwendyk hopes Lehtonen can grow into the role of a shutdown netminder that can lead the Stars into the postseason.
As for that young core, Nieuwendyk is identifying those players and then working around them. Guys like Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski and Nicklas Grossman. And there are others that could be on the way soon, still plying their craft at the minor league level.
Nieuwendyk doesn't have a ton of money to spend on veteran players to put around that group and must deal with a salary cap and a new owner who may not allow the club to spend to the ceiling. But the budget is increasing and will be above the floor, which is at $48 million. The Stars will need to spend some money just to reach the floor, so Nieuwendyk will have some flexibility.
But more than talent, Nieuwendyk is working on the overall culture and leadership of the team. He wants it more like that 1999 group.
"I really believe that's the type of team you win with," Nieuwendyk said. "You have to have talent, goaltending and all those things. But you also have to have guys understand how important it is every day to help each other and push each other. It sounds simple, but it's difficult. But when you have that culture, you can get it done."
Nieuwendyk said he sees signs of that from the stalwarts on his team. Now his job is to continue the indoctrination with help from a new coach and, hopefully soon, a new owner. If he can, he believes one day in the not-so-distant future, there will be another Stars team photo that looks like that 1999 version -- beaming faces posed with Lord Stanley's Cup at center ice again.
Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.