Heading into the 2013-14 season even the most optimistic of Dallas Stars fans knew that the chances of everything turning around over the course of one season was always a longshot. What new GM Jim Nill accomplished with a few deft moves and due diligence was nothing short of amazing and instantly put the franchise back into the national spotlight, but this was a team possessing too many holes to think that perhaps the dream of returning to the postseason wasn't nearly as far off as it has seemed the past half-decade.
After all, that's how long it's been since the Dallas Stars made the postseason, over half a decade ago. For most of us, that victory in May of 2008 over the San Jose Sharks is still so fresh in our memories that it's inconceivable to think that it really can't be that hard to get right back to that point -- after all, the Dallas Stars were right there. So close.
The simple truth is that only two players remain on the team from that 2008 roster, and one of them is currently rehabbing a broken leg.
The confluence of events that led to this point has been well chronicled over the years; just take a few hours to peruse the headlines of the Defending Big D archives to re-familiarize yourself with all of the ups and downs of a hockey franchise in a slow downward spiral. For various reasons, the "reset" that this franchise desperately needed was delayed until it became absolutely imperative that change was made and that moment came in April of 2013. Suddenly the general manager, the coaching staff, a new team captain and even the team colors and logos were brand new for a brand new season and a fresh start for the Dallas Stars.
That fresh start has been pushed by marketing, the young players have been front and center for the team and the new ownership has done all it's can to market the team after years of a self-induced advertising near-blackout. That fresh start, which had so many fans so excited in November and December when a slow start had led to a steady push up the standings and a proclamation by fans that this was a team they could get behind, a fun and fast team with attitude and skill that obviously enjoyed playing together.
It was even said, from a fan directly to me, that they finally had a team they were excited about no matter win or lose -- that they knew this season was part of the journey and the regrowth of the franchise and it was exciting to be able to witness the rising of the proverbial Phoenix.
And then 2014 happened. All good graces are gone, the words of encouragement are beginning to fall flat and the sight of the season slipping away right in front of us yet again is a reality that many so obviously don't want to face. A 1-8-1 stretch to open the new year has been an outright disaster and no amount of "the CORSI looks better" and "but they're a better possession team" can help ease the painful impact as the losses continue to stack up.
With the trade deadline just under two months away, but less than a month of actual hockey remaining until that point, the heat has turned up as fans begin to look to more changes -- more roster turnover, more pieces to attempt to fit into the puzzle until the picture becomes more clear and progress is finally achieved.
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News caught up to Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill over the weekend, prior to Monday's loss in Nashville, and asked some preemptive questions in regards to the new GM's views on the upcoming trade deadline and his vision for the team moving forward. As expected, Nill was forthcoming yet realistic was being careful not to actually reveal his potential path moving forward.
"It's tight out there, and they have to be almost perfect deals for teams to consider them,'' Nill said, in regards to why trades might not be as simple and as easy and it seems. "Not only does the change of player for player have to make sense, but the money has to make sense.''
The salary cap, for just this season, was down to $63.4 million and forced several teams to abandon contracts and salary just to get under the ceiling. This allowed the Stars to make several competitive moves in adding roster players but also created a cap environment where so many teams are cap tight that the big blockbuster trades many expect and demand might not be possible until this offseason -- when the cap will jump up to $71.1 million.
After all, the players most fans want traded the most will be the ones hardest to move. Sergei Gonchar, Shawn Horcoff and Ray Whitney are all older and veteran players on the edge of the careers and all come with steep cap prices; Whitney and Vern Fiddler are likely to be the two easiest veterans for Nill to potentially move simply because their contracts are expected to expire after this season.
"You have to be aware of every team's cap and know who is free so that you're prepared, and then you just have to be patient,'' Nill said. "We all want to pick up a good player who has a good contract that makes us a better team and makes our budget work better. But it's a hard thing to do right now.''
There's a reason that those that have spent time around this franchise for so long are so excited about Jim Nill's arrival in Dallas and have faith in his vision for the team. While it's hard for fans to understand, almost all of which are removed from the inner workings of the organization and only see what really matters -- the product on ice, Nill has exacted a change in attitude and atmosphere with the franchise and there's a confidence that the right decisions will be made.
Now, right now all we have is faith. Faith in Nill's professionalism, his vision and his smarts and his ability to scout other players and teams and his ability to take advantage of 25 years worth of relationships across the NHL. While the Tyler Seguin trade was bold and changed the path of the franchise in an instant, there have been other decisions that have certainly not worked out. We're also approaching the first trade deadline and playoff run during Nill's tenure in Dallas and as we learned with Joe Nieuwendyk, it is during the coming months that the job becomes the trickiest.
After all, the Dallas Stars will once again be playing the game of pushing for the playoffs or becoming sellers at the deadline or better yet -- the game of straddling the fence and basically not doing anything at all. Fans, especially on today, will tell you they want immediate change and they want the veterans gone and that if this team is going to burn the season away it might as well be with the young players that might actually have a future with the team.
Time to see what Colton Sceviour, Brett Ritchie, Scott Glennie, Curtiis McKenzie, Travis Morin, Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak can really do -- time to let them learn on the job and at the very least give this betrodden fanbase some sort of reason to have faith that the future is indeed as bright as it's been claimed to be.
"I do look at wining every game, I look at all of the issues that goes into that and what we can do better,'' Nill would say, and highlighted the need to keep looking forward. "But I also have to look at big picture, and so it is a little different for me. We need to win, but we can't win at all costs.''
The fans have been riding this rollercoaster for over five years now and the term "patience" is now considered a curse in some circles in Dallas. Yet Nill has been on the job for just over half a season and his hiring, along with the hiring of Lindy Ruff, was not meant to be a quick fix or to exact a turnaround of the caliber that we've all hoped for. Instead, this was about building a successful hockey team that could sustain its winning ways over the coming years.
Nill will need time to make a series of calculated moves to improve the team and it's almost certain that his focus has now turned to the defense, which the Stars have been attempting to address for as long as they've been out of the postseason. In a perfect world the GM would wave a magic wand and trade Robidas and Daley and acquire Shea Weber or P.K. Subban and put this team right back on the path for a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, this world is far, far from perfect.
If it means living through yet another rough patch to accomplish that goal, then that's what Nill and his coaching staff will do. The postseason, that hockey promised land of meaningful hockey, was always a longshot this season and just because that reality is now crashing down around us doesn't mean the vision should suddenly change.
"We're in a competitive business, and our goal is to make the playoffs,'' Nail. "It would be huge for this organization to get into the playoffs this year, so we go into every game doing everything we can to win that game. That's the focus, and we put a lot of work into it.''
Jim Nill understands what needs to be done, but the business of exacting such change is never easy. The Stars are in a tough spot, financially and personnel-wise, and the hope is that the excitement and positivity of the last two months returns even if the season is eventually lost.
A sudden, magical run into the playoffs would certainly be nice as well.