FRISCO, Texas -- There was a time, early in his minor league coaching career with the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers, when future Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan knew he needed to get better as a coach. He was behind the bench with a veteran team and took them to the postseason. He figured he'd be able to do that annually. But when those players were gone and a new, younger group was inserted in its place, things didn't go as Gulutzan planned.
"We played in 54 one-goal hockey games and we didn't make the playoffs and it drove me crazy," said Gulutzan, then 33 years old. "It made me realize I didn't know a whole heck of a lot. I spent the whole summer consumed by reading, going to clinics and spending time with NHL guys picking their brains. I even went to a nine-day, stay-in-a-dorm coaching seminar in July. But I came out of it a better coach, a more prepared coach, and we were better as a team after that."
Gulutzan, 40, says he feels similar now as he spends long days at the office a short walk down the hall from what is now an empty dressing room at Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco. The coach isn't even sure he wants to watch the NHL playoffs yet, still smarting from the fact that he's not coaching in them. The Stars collapsed down the stretch, going 3-9-0 in the final 12 games to fall from first in the Pacific Division to out of the playoffs.
Part of that is the coaching staff's fault. Not all of it, but part of it. And Gulutzan knows it. The club wasn't as sharp as it needed to be with the playoffs on the line, and the power play in particular was awful. The Stars were last in the NHL with the man advantage and never could get much momentum on it all season. That's the difference between a team in the postseason party and one already on the golf course.
"I'm certainly willing to take the blame on the power play," Gulutzan said. "I changed it three or four times when it wasn't working. I changed personnel. We could never get it kick-started. It's a simple thing. You've got to shoot the puck, outwork the four guys out there, get the puck to the net and have a guy standing in front. I should have kept reinforcing that and stopped changing. It's one of the things I've learned."
To Gulutzan's credit, he's owning up to his mistakes and analyzing every aspect of the season in an effort to learn. He's got the right attitude about it and, just like during his stint in Las Vegas, he'll figure out a way to get better.
"I'm digging in at the office now," Gulutzan said. "I'm not going to be intimidated by the league, not that I was this year, but there's apprehension. I'm not going to have that on my plate next year and I feel like if I can dig in here, tweak a few little things, that I'll be a better coach."
If anyone in the Dallas-Fort Worth coaching fraternity knows a little something about what Gulutzan is feeling, it's Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington.
Like Gulutzan, Washington's first managerial job at the big league level came in Texas when he was tapped to take over for Buck Showalter. The 2007 Rangers weren't considered playoff caliber and they sputtered as Washington attempted to implement his style. The new skipper made mistakes and came under criticism for how he managed the game.
But like Gulutzan, he had a young team, and general manager Jon Daniels hired him because he thought he could motivate, teach and grow with the team as it went from last place to contending status.
"I was more comfortable my second year and the players know you better and you've learned them," Washington said. "As long as you are pushing and doing the right things, you need somebody to have patience. I had that. All of a sudden, the right players buy in and the game starts to show them things that you're preaching and it gets more consistent.
"In my case, I was a novice. I'm learning, too. I'm not afraid of my mistakes. No matter what you're coaching, you can't be afraid of mistakes. There's no perfection in sports. All you can do is keep learning."
Of course, Daniels also gave Washington some better personnel through developing minor leaguers and making shrewd trades. Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk plans on doing the same for Gulutzan now that new owner Tom Gaglardi is in place and is willing to provide more resources.
"We didn't hire Glen Gulutzan for a one-year sample," Nieuwendyk said. "We hired him knowing and thinking that he's going to be a long-term solution in the National Hockey League. We're lucky to have him. He's a bright young guy. He's prepared. He experienced a lot of things this year dealing with a lot of situations. I think he'll grow as a coach."
I do, too. Gulutzan clearly knows the game and he's had success as he worked his way up the coaching ladder. Now, with a year under his belt, he better knows his team and the NHL as a whole. It's difficult to push the right buttons if you don't know what those buttons are yet. Now, Gulutzan does.
"He's a good, young coach," Gaglardi said. "He's a rookie and you know when you hire someone like that there's going to be a learning curve. He knows how to get through to young players. There's nothing worse than a good coach who is tuned out. I don't think that will happen with him."
The first step is what Washington noted: not being afraid of mistakes. Gulutzan isn't afraid of them, rather he's motivated by them. That's what Nieuwendyk and Gaglardi want to see.
"Until you live something, I don't know if you can completely understand it," Gulutzan said. "The learning curve wasn't enormous, but enough to say I can be six or seven points better. And that's a playoff spot. I think as a staff, we added points at times too. But we can improve and get even more. That's what I'll be working on this summer."