Jim Nill's Culture Change in Dallas Starts with Off-Season Challenge to Young Players

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

"There are really no days off in the summer," Jamie Benn told media Tuesday when speaking of Jim Nill's message to the team as the off-season began.

"Culture is always a funny thing," Dallas Stars owner Gaglardi responded, when asked about the team's impending makeover under new general manager Jim Nill.

"It's a word that gets overused at some level because the culture we had here this year was clearly a bunch of successful people trying to be successful and get the team into the playoffs."

"Culture change" has been widely used in sports in recent years to describe a very broad concept of how coaches interact their players. Hitchcock was a task-masker. He was "grating." The players tired of it. Dave Tippett was brought in. The media used phrases like "country club" (fairly or unfairly? We werent' around at the time and it's hard to say) as his tenure came to an end.

The term is nearly always utilized posthumously where the out-going regime is concerned - Which is to say that no one was talking about "culture" three weeks or three months ago. It's a word that makes it easy to ask a question that basically amounts to "We're assuming you're going to change a bunch of ___ around here, right?" without putting too fine a point on it.

So much remains unknown about next season, however.

With the possibility of a new coach, free agent acquisitions, and trade acquisitions to go along with a new division and an already young lineup, not to mention a potential shift in identity for the team on the ice, the "change" hasn't even begun to really take shape.

So Nill left the players with advice on fine tuning the only thing they can really control at this point - Their bodies and their training regimens in the off-season.

"I talked about a guy like Ray Whitney," Nill said. "We've got guys in that room who are 38, 39, 40, 41 years old...why are they still playing hockey? Because they're pros, they're everyday pros. They come every day to the rink, they do the right things and when they leave the rink, they do the right things. And they do it year after year. That's why they're still playing. We've got a young team here, and they need to learn that."

After referencing the issue several times in the initial press conference he was asked if he felt that was lacking in Dallas.

"You see that with most teams that are young," Nill continued. "It needs to be addressed. They've been out of the playoffs four or five years, so something does have to change. There has to be some accountability. There has to be accountability to yourself first of all, accountability to your players and accountability to your fans. We need to go from there."

He left the players with a similar message after addressing them as a group Tuesday morning.

"For guys to change their lifestyles a bit. It's all part of being a professional," Stars center Jamie Benn told media in Frisco. "We're done here now, but we've got to focus on getting in shape and being prepared for training camp next summer. There are really no days off in the summer, you've got to work hard and get yourself ready."

Nill would go on to reference having a good start as key next season. Stockpiling points in October and November is vital, and he's left the players with a lasting impression they'll carry with them as they're on their own for the next four months.

"It's nothing against the young guys," Nill said of his inexperienced roster. "It's a learning process, but the quicker they learn it, the better off they're going to be [as] pros.

The culture change theme then reminded me of something we heard from Dallas Stars icon Mike Modano when he floated off into the sunset, only to find himself wearing the hated wheel - That practices in Detroit were "night and day" from what he had been experiencing in Dallas for quite some time.

"Last 2-3 years (in Dallas) have been a real big difference," Modano told media during Red Wings training camp in 2010. "The pace, the tempo is night and day from what we're used to. Very similar to what Hitch was doing in the late ‘90s, early 2000's. So you needed to be in shape, you needed to skate hard to be effective. That's kind of my situation now, just trying to play a little catch-up, refer back to those days to how we played."

I can't help but wonder if Nill will be of like-mind, though it's not like Ken Holland was running the practices there. Still, if that's the way it was done for the last 15 years of Nill's experience he could desire a similar mentality at the rink and his head coach will be aware.

Live your life in a manner befitting of a champion ever day. Practice like champions. Pay attention to the details on and off the rink. Never turn off. It's demanding and unyielding, but it might be worth it. Talent (or lack thereof) generally will win out in the end. It seems Nill wants his athletes as primed as they possibly can be in the mean time (while he accrues more talent) so he can get a true measure of how much truly lies inside these young men.

The existing Stars' training staff might take exception to the idea that a culture change is needed where conditioning and lifestyle choices are concerned, but as any of us who have been through a shakeup at the top in the work place can tell you - New personnel and re-evaluation can be a powerful motivator.

As such, Nill potentially left the players with a very impactful first impression to consider over the summer: That his expectations are sky-high. If they raise theirs to match then the kind of accountability he's looking for gets a head start from within before camp ever breaks in September.

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