The high of 1999 had faded. The legends and superstars of the past had moved on and the one player that had helped grow the sport of hockey in Texas had retired; there wasn't much hope to be found in North Texas when it came to the Dallas Stars and for several years fans would look to the future and have faith that one day the frustration and impatience would soon go away.
The Stars are lucky—for their first 15 years in Dallas the team was one of the most successful in hockey, rivaling only the Detroit Red Wings for sustained postseason success. Which is why the sudden postseason drought that started after the best postseason run for the team since 2008 was so painful for fans and for the sport in this area.
What we've learned over the past six years is that while Dallas is certainly a "winner's town" and the fans will flock to whichever team is the best at the moment—fans also want to, at the very least, know that there is an actual plan in place and that the team they are supporting will do all they can to actually win.
Which is why it wasn't just the lack of the playoffs that made fans turn away from the Stars—it was the lack of a committed owner, the absence of support throughout the organization that was apparent to so many, and the inability of the franchise to make the moves necessary to get the Stars back into contention.
It was mediocrity on every level—and now the Stars have suddenly pulled themselves out of that quagmire.
It's not so much that Jim Nill stepped into the GM position, and with the financial backing and support of owner Tom Gaglardi, drastically made over the roster and suddenly created one of the deeper forward groups in the Western Conference. It's that Nill has done it so quick and so aggressively and has shown Dallas Stars fans and the rest of the NHL that this is a franchise that is serious about taking a big step forward and focusing on contending with the superpowers of the West.
During the press conference to introduce center Jason Spezza, Nill was asked if this is a sign of the team's commitment to winning now—rather than continuing the slow rebuild. The Stars GM responded with quite a remarkable and candid talk on where the franchise is headed and his mindset in remaking the Stars into what the team has quickly become.
"Yes it is," said Nill. "When we came here, we knew there were some holes that had to be filled. We sat down and last year we were able to add Tyler Seguin and that filled a major void and we got a couple other signings. So now you start the season, you don't know how it's going to fit together and as I mentioned before, it was a new management team. It was a new coaching staff.
"There was just a lot of moving parts that we didn't know how it was going to come together. And as we got into February, we realized you know what, there's something special here and we ended up we made the playoffs with a great run to get in the playoffs in a tough conference as we witnessed during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We are in a tough, tough conference but that's good. That's going to make us better. So we went into the playoffs and I think we gave Anaheim everything they could handle. It could have gone either way and that's the way the playoffs are but we knew then that we still had to make another step. And that's when we sat down with our ownership and our management team and said we got to make that next step, it has to happen.
"And as the summer went on and the spring went on, we realized that Jason may be available. As I mentioned, our farm team was very successful. We knew we had the assets. It was the time to do it. There's kids knocking on the door. We have our depth now and like I said, this shows that we're here now.
"Adding Jason Spezza, if you look at the scoring race last year, we would have three of the top-30 scorers on our team if Jason was with us with his production and what he did last year in Ottawa, we'd have three players in the top-30 scoring. That doesn't happen very often other than with two or three teams in the League.
"Somebody mentioned about him kind of being kind of the second line. I really look at it, I think it's a 1A and 1B. Jason Spezza is in the prime of his career. He's an elite player. Having Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza out there as your two centermen coming out the door, when we go on the road, other teams are going to have a tough time matching up against us. Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff have lots of options and the other players we have on our team, it just adds to kind of the potential that we have moving forward.
"We're excited about the depth. I've talked to Lindy. We have lots of options. There's going to be injuries in the game. We have lots of options there, so this is definitely a statement that we're making a move, we're here and we're looking forward to the season starting."
That commitment to "winning now," a show of force that makes the statement that investing in this team—financially, emotionally, mentally, physically—is going to be more worthwhile than it has been in quite some time in Dallas. Fans and players want to know their sacrifices are going to be valued and Nill has the Stars moving in the perfect direction for such a commitment.
That commitment is also what lured Alex Hemsky and Jason Spezza to Dallas, two players that chose to go to a growing franchise with a bright future—a team they believe gives them a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
"Well, I think we're putting hockey back on the map here," said Nill. "I think Dallas is a great hockey town. You look back to when they and in their heydays when they won the Cup and that Dallas was as good a city anywhere in the world for hockey, and I think we're getting back there. We have a good core of kids and they're not kids anymore but compared to my age, I guess they are, of great young players that are under the age of 25.
"And you mix that in with some of the great young players we've had down in Austin where they won the Calder Cup, I think there's great things ahead of this organization. When you add a world-class player like Jason Spezza, who can bring his experiences, his skill level, I know he's excited about coming here, winning. He wants to win a Cup. Same with Hemsky, you start putting those things together, I think there's going to be some special things happening here."
The question now is just how quickly the Stars can continue to improve and see that improvement in the results on the ice. The Stars were seemingly two or three years away from actually being considered serious contenders in the West, and now the team has taken a much quicker leap forward and in theory—are already ahead of the schedule most expected when Nill took over.
"You really don't know," said Nill, about whether these moves will pay off. "You know what your needs are, you just don't know how fast it's going to take to get there. And once again, it's a different world now. When you're in a cap world, it's a different business. Managing the cap is a big a part of the business as scouting nowadays and we've been fortunate to have the perfect storm here two years in a row, to have the flexibility to have the assets, that's a key.
"Are we ahead? I would say yes, we are. But still lots of work to be done. When I talked to the players after our playoff run this year, we didn't know if we'd make the playoffs or not and we made it. Now the expectation is to get higher. Now we added these two players and our expectations are higher even now."