Joe Nieuwendyk faces tough decision

FRISCO, Texas – Joe Nieuwendyk is getting ready to make his most important hire as Dallas Stars general manager.

For the past two seasons, Nieuwendyk has worked to mold a team in his image, with players who work hard, care about the other guys in the dressing room and understand their role.

For that kind of team to return the franchise to the playoffs on a yearly basis -- which had been the norm until thepast three seasons -- it will take a coach who can teach young players and motivate the team to reach its potential.

Nieuwendyk decided a few months ago that Marc Crawford wasn't that guy. It was a difficult decision for Nieuwendyk, who surprised many by firing Dave Tippett and hiring Crawford shortly after becoming GM.

But after two years of missing the playoffs and changing a veteran-heavy team into a squad more dependent on youngsters, Nieuwendyk is searching for a different kind of leader.

"I think having been here two years now and seeing the players and the team, it helps me tremendously," Nieuwendyk said.

Despite getting younger, with 21-year-old Jamie Benn at the heart of the rebuilding plan, the Stars scored 95 points last season and would have made the playoffs with a victory in the season finale.

"I'm looking for a guy who can relate to players and grow with the young group of players," Nieuwendyk said. "I want a longer-term guy. I want a guy who can build with these players."

Nieuwendyk has four prime candidates. The most recognizable name is Ken Hitchcock, the former Stars coach who led the team to the 1999 Stanley Cup. Neiuwendyk was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner that postseason and is familiar with what Hitchcock can do.

The GM has also talked with Montreal assistant coach Kirk Muller, a former Stars player. Muller is a hot name in coaching circles and a guy considered to have huge upside. But the 44-year-old doesn't have the pedigree as a head coach at a top minor league level.

The Stars' front office was impressed by Nashville assistant Peter Horacheck, who interviewed well and has been very active with head coach Barry Trotz in terms of in-game strategy and preparation.

Horacheck, 51, also has head coaching experience in the ECHL, IHL and AHL and had success at all of those levels. Horacheck's reputation is that of a guy who relates well to younger players.

Closer to home, Nieuwendyk also talked with Texas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. He's an intriguing option in that he coached an AHL expansion team to the playoffs its first two years of existence.

He came to Texas after six years as a head coach in the ECHL and was coach of the year in that league in 2005-06. He's 39 years old and is familiar with the Stars' prospects.

Nieuwendyk isn't tipping his hand. But judging by his criteria, it seems that Horacheck and Gulutzan are the leading candidates. Both appear capable of growing with a young team and have extensive experience teaching young players.

Nieuwendyk knows he must help his next coach by adding depth to his team and trying to get a top-six forward, likely by trade, and a top defenseman, either in the free agent market or in a deal with another team.

But it's critical he chooses the right personality to take over a team that, while missing the playoffs, showed flashes of ability.

That guy must help get the team through the rough patches, something the 2010-11 Stars didn't do very well. That's not completely Crawford's fault. But it's important that the new hire be able to navigate that difficult time and keep the team competitive.

Nieuwendyk doesn't want to wait on a new owner to make that call, either. He wants a coach in place by the draft, but at least by July 1 when free agency opens.

"The guys we might bring in want to know who their coach is," Nieuwendyk said.

So do Stars fans, who just want someone who can help restore the franchise to its status among the elites in the league.

Nieuwendyk gets a second chance to do that, and he's got to make the right choice.

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.