Now that the pain of the season’s final game has subsided a bit, I thought it would be an interesting idea to break down Jim Nill’s first season move by move. Overall, it is indisputable that it was a tremendous success. There are pieces in place now that will make the Stars both competitive and exciting to watch for years to come. However, not everything went exactly as expected – there were some disappointments along the way but also some happy surprises. I think by looking at each move individually, we can get a better feel for where the franchise is at and what we might have to look forward to this summer.
So the first move we are going to look at was an obvious home run – the re-signing of Jordie Benn (you thought I was going to start with Seguin, didn’t you?). I had honestly thought of Jordie Benn as an expendable depth defenseman, so I was surprised that Nill got him locked up for 3 years so quickly. I chalked it up to the organization throwing the Benns some family love. However, Jordie emerged as legitimate Top 4 defenseman as the year progressed and looks to be a staple on the Stars blue line. Clearly the organization had seen something every day in practice that wasn’t coming through last year during games.
Okay, now we will address the blockbuster – I’m going to try not to dwell because it’s been discussed at length. Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverly, and Ryan Button for Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Joe Morrow, and Matt Fraser. All at once, Nill found his number one center and a dreamy new face for the teenage girl demographic. In addition, he found a dynamic jack-of-all in Rich Peverly, who was a real game changer for the Stars at times. The price was steep – we all know what Loui brings to a team, and Reilly Smith earned a spot in the Bruins top 6. It’s not worth debating whether or not we won the trade (we did), but it is worth observing that this is the kind of move the Stars desperately needed. Jamie was able to play wing for his new best friend, and we all got to watch them abuse opposing net minders every night. With this move alone, Nill’s first year became a success.
The next move was to further solidify the Stars up the middle of the ice by acquiring Shawn Horcoff in exchange for Philip Larsen and a seventh round pick. For the Oilers, the move was motivated by Horcoff’s $5.5 million cap hit, but Nill saw the opportunity to add some veteran leadership to his group. It was apparent early on that Horcoff was well liked and respected within the room, however, his play on the ice was not what I expected. He was amongst the league worst in penalty differential and seemed to reach out to hook whenever his legs stopped keeping up. If you had asked me at the end of the regular season, I wouldn’t have had many good things to say. However, "Comrade Horcov" really found new life in the postseason and was a ton of fun to watch. At best he’ll have a very average regular season in 2014-15, but he will be a good veteran presence with the impending departure of Ray Whitney.
Nill then turned his attention to the backup goaltender issue by signing the former Dallas Stars, Dan Ellis. In theory, this put an end to the Bachman/Nilthorp competition for the backup job and gave us a reliable backup. Ellis was thrown into the fire early due to Kari’s injury in October. He looked shaky at times, and the team never went to him with regularity as the season progressed. This move didn’t pan out the way anyone expected, and it forced Nill to make another move that yielded interesting results to say the least. More on the strange fellow we traded Ellis for later.
Early July was very busy for Mr. Nill as he then sent a conditional sixth round draft pick for the rights to Sergei Gonchar. For me, this was a terrific, low-risk move that gave us a chance to sign a consistent veteran defensemen to help shepherd our youth movement. The guy had put up 26 points in 45 games in the shortened season and played some decent minutes on a playoff team. This was shaping up nicely. Boy was I wrong, and so was Jim Nill when he gave Gonchar a two-year, $10-million contract. Something happened over the summer, and Sergei looked slow and unable to use his two decades of NHL experience to prevent turnovers. Signing veteran players late in their career can be risky and this is evidence of that fact. Unfortunately, we have him on the books for another year, and this is causing a bit of a log jam for young players trying to make the jump (Kevin Connauton).I hope Nill is able to move him this summer, but it is hard to imagine that the phone is ringing off the hook for him. At least Nichushkin will have someone to speak Russian to.
All was quiet for a while after the big moves of the summer. In November, Dustin Jeffrey was claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh. Jeffrey was a decent player to have on hand since I believe Whitney was injured at the time. He showed flashes of speed and hands but never seemed to do much, and for that reason I refer to him as Wandell 2.0. He has a role on the squad as a depth player and his speed makes him look at home on the roster.
The next significant move was the Robidas trade that happened on the eve of the deadline. The Stars received a conditional fourth round pick from Anaheim in return for the gritty defenseman. Robidas future with the team was really in question due his expiring contract and broken leg. Personally, I questioned this move simply because it sent one of our players to a team that was a potential playoff opponent. However, in light of the fact that Robidas approached Nill and requested a trade to a contender, I can understand it. I also am okay with the move because it allowed Patrick Nemeth to step into the lineup and prove himself at the NHL level. I absolutely loved what I saw out of Nemeth and am certain he would not have gotten the chance if Robidas was still with the Stars. I think the Stars have finally found a viable stay-at-home blueliner if Nemeth can stay healthy. As a side note, the outcome for Robidas was heartbreaking – hopefully he can come back strong next year.
The final move I’m going to discuss is the acquisition of Tim Thomas from Florida in exchange for Dan Ellis. Now, having never really paid much attention to Thomas’ style in net, this move looked great. Ellis had not been a viable option and the Stars needed someone to play some games down the stretch. Right away, Thomas came in for an injured Kari Lehtonen during the Modano game and closed the game out strong. He then turned away 28 shots from the Blues and led the Stars to a 3-2 OT victory. He went on to drop his next 5 starts and really failed the eyeball test a lot of the time. His unorthodox style and ugly equipment really stopped being cute during the Winnipeg game. He must have been some sort of athletic freak to win a Vezina with the way he plays in net. Overall, this was a good attempt to stabilize our backup situation, but Thomas turned out to be another veteran that just isn’t who he used to be. I fully expect the Stars to address the backup situation this summer unless Jack Campbell makes a very strong case in the AHL playoffs.
So what does the summer have in store for Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars? The puzzle pieces are all lining up and it feels like the Stars are a getting to the point where a few impact players can make them a real threat. I think the focus this summer will be acquiring a number two center to even out our top six. Paul Stastny would be my pick, but he will likely be massively overpaid and heavily courted. If Nill can’t find a long term solution, I think Jason Spezza emerges as a trade target. He’s strong producer who has one year left on his contract that could be a nice short term option.
Stars fans are also itching for the team to make a move on a top pairing defenseman. I’m all for throwing an offer sheet at PK Subban, but realistically the options available would be either too expensive or too risky to justify. It might be in the Stars’ best interest to wait for a better opportunity while seeing what their current group is capable of. Nill seemed to voice this opinion in his recent comments, and it is easy to see why. Daley and Goligoski have shown the ability to handle top opponents and really upped their play last year. As I mentioned above, Jordie Benn and Patrick Nemeth have emerged as solid, steady defenders. Brendan Dillon also has the ability to play top minutes depending on his partner. I will admit that Gonchar is a weak spot and one that seems immune from the healthy scratch. If we find a way to move him, I like the chances that Connauton or Oleksiak could round out a fairly solid group on the blue line.
It’s an exciting time to be a Stars fan and I am eager to see what Nill does going forward. After the moves he made last year, it’s clear that he is focused on putting a competitive team on the ice without sacrificing the future. I’m sure we’ll have an eventful summer, but in the meantime it is always fun to debate what the Stars should do and play "armchair GM".