When Jim Nill was hired as the general manager of the Dallas Stars the team was one without a true identity or direction, a ship a bit lost at sea with some good and strong parts holding it together but without the proper captain to direct them where to go. With his arrival, along with the hiring of coach Lindy Ruff, came a set purpose to build a proud and stable organization that would build towards the goal of sustained success.
It wasn't just the aggressive moves to change the overall makeup of the team - although that certainly helped - it was a focus on the fact that the hockey team in Dallas is a family and would operate as such. For those that have spent time around this team or even watched from afar the transformation has been very apparent, as what just a few years ago was a relatively talented but underachieving group of individuals has become a strong foundation of tight-knit players with a young and skilled core supplemented with a strong veteran presence.
Nill says that the Stars locker room as it is now is the best he's ever been around, and it's never been more apparent than over this past summer. The Stars players are frequently seen on social media together in groups and have spent extensive time together in Dallas throughout the offseason, when it's been customary to see teams scatter like leaves in the wind once a season ends. Players both coming to the team anew and returning speak of the desire to be a part of what is being built in Dallas, a bit of a turnaround from past seasons when things weren't so friendly.
While Nill's influence and focus on building a family-esque atmosphere has certainly contributed to the strong core of the team, much of this has also been organic as the team has become younger over the past few years.
With the Stars turning the focus back towards internal development and the building of a successful system between the NHL team in Dallas and the AHL team in Cedar Park, the team has built a strong pipeline of players that can almost seamlessly fit into either locker room or atmosphere.
As the core of the team has grown younger so has the closeness of the group this team is effectively built around, a core that is complimented by a strong veteran presence that was further boosted by the addition of Jason Spezza - a player who all former teammates say is one of the best guys to be around in a locker room.
It's tough to say just how much the "closeness" of a locker room really contributes to on-ice performance, but it certainly helps to build the type of team that so obviously plays for one another each and every game. There was a certainly quality to the 2010 Texas Rangers that showcased this very well, where it was so apparent how much the players enjoyed being around each other. It was a contagious atmosphere and one that was similarly built by the Stars last season and into this summer.
The Stars have certainly become more talented, but more importantly have become a true team, and it can only help the Stars find continued success as expectations increase moving forward. The Stars will no longer be sneaking up on anyone and will be expected to contend in the ultra-competitive Central Division and strong network of internal support and structure will only help the team get through the inevitable ups and downs of a long season.
It's a stark contrast to what is happening in San Jose, as what is supposed to be a highly competitive and talented team is having trouble figuring out how to make all the pieces work together. Sharks GM Doug Wilson stated that his players felt more like co-workers than teammates, a statement that makes sense when you see how the team has fared in the postseason the last decade or so.
"It's partly the people, it's partly the environment, it's partly how they're managed and coached," said Wilson. "It's a combination of all those things. There's teams in this league that are very talented teams. But, why do you finish it off [like] the San Antonio Spurs in basketball, and the L.A. Kings? They were a close team and did all those little things for each other.
"Sometimes the pilot light goes out, sometimes there's injuries, sometimes people need to look in the mirror and wake up again. That's usually what you're looking at. But, it comes back to teammate-to-teammate, saying, ‘you know what? I'll be there for you.' And, we didn't have it."
Contrast that further to Vernon Fiddler, a veteran center who at one point was asking about a possible trade out of Dallas as he saw his role reduced yet who willfully returned this offseason after briefly testing the free agency waters. Despite the addition of Jason Spezza, whose presence almost certainly cements Fiddler to the fourth line, the veteran was glad to return to Dallas and continue to be a part of what is going on at the American Airlines Center.
The Stars won't have guaranteed success this next season, especially considering that almost every other team in the Central improved this past summer. Yet for the first time in a long while expectations are very high for hockey in Dallas and the Stars have not only put the talent in place, but also a strong and tight-knit foundation around which to find success.