Jim Nill's tenure as general manager of the Dallas Stars has, so far, been a study in prolonged, multi-axis success. Since 2013, GM Jim has busied himself collecting franchise building blocks, valuable veteran help, and a healthy collection of prospects. From Tyler Seguin to Antti Niemi and every Patrick Sharp in between, he has shepherded the Stars from a flawed young squad to one of the league's most potent rosters, but has he been perfect?
It seems weird to ask that, doesn't it? Wrong, somehow. As if doubts and questions about his actions should be thrown into a deep dark hole, right next to all the Mooterus jerseys, but just like the Mooterus, sometimes things deserve a second look.
Don't worry. Jim Nill has done an excellent job. The point here isn't to blast the guy, or to call into question the Stars' long-term strategy. It's working. The present is great, the future is bright, just not for everybody, and that's a little bit of a problem.
In 2010 the defensively suspect Stars nabbed Swedish prospect Patrik Nemeth. One year later they picked Jamie Oleksiak. The pair were immediately interesting. Nemeth was the steady, big-bodied defensive stalwart Stars fans had been dreaming about since Derian Hatcher left town, and Oleksiak was basically a somewhat socialized sasquatch on skates. The pair were going to turn Dallas' defense into an impregnable wall.
Skip to the present and things have not exactly worked out. Oleksiak has played in 65 games scattered across four seasons while Nemeth has managed 33 across parts of three. Meanwhile, John Klingberg has blossomed, Alex Goligoski remains underrated, and Jordie Benn refuses to fail. Trades have been a factor with both Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya securing roster spots, and a third prospect, Jyrki Jokipakka, seems to have the final spot in the lineup mostly under control. Down on the farm, fans area already starting to focus more on prospects like Stephen Johns and Julius Honka.
Years of steady work see the Stars with a surplus of assets, and choices are being made. In the case of Oleksiak and Nemeth, it's a progress problem. As in neither player can make any right now. For the team, it's a resource management issue.
There's an "earn it" argument here, and I get that. The Stars are 19-5-1, and while an all-world offense is a big piece of the puzzle, improvements along the backline are impossible to ignore. The six guys in the lineup most nights are playing well. That's something coach Lindy Ruff needs to reward. He also needs to win as many games as possible, and change could introduce risk.
Jim Nill's problem is slightly different. Either Nemeth or Oleksiak (maybe even both) could still be valuable, long-term NHL players. They're both young (23 and 22 respectively), big-bodied defencemen, which is a role that typically matures late. They could also not turn out, and in the process, hurt the Stars on the ice.
But how on earth does the team figure that out if they never play?
The pair has combined for nine games this season, often with large stretches of play in between. Is it realistic to expect any massive leaps forward to occur in relative isolation from playing time? Furthermore, the need of the pair to pass through waivers eliminates the possibility of a polish-up stint in the AHL. Even if an injury does pop up (knock wood), has such sporadic ice time really kept either ready to step in long-term?
So flip the coin. Maybe the pair are riding the pine because other players are better, and maybe they're not in the Stars' plans moving forward. The current situation is still an issue. Fans can throw out the softball Zdeno Chara comparison all they want, but Mike Milbury isn't walking through the door anytime soon. Nobody sells the farm for a depressed asset, even if that asset is 6-foot-7 or won a Junior World Championship with Sweden in 2014.
This is where Nill gets a little bit of tarnish. The logjam on the blueline prevents Oleksiak and Nemeth from gaining value either as playing assets or trade chips. Their version of limbo also occupies NHL-level roster spots and therefore limits the Stars' flexibility in other areas. They make it harder for the Stars to carry injury or fatigue insurance at forward, and less likely the next wave (Johns and Honka) see time in the NHL.
The Stars are better this season across the board. All of the sudden they're a contending team. That shift changes the decision-making calculus. Jim Nill and his staff have clearly reached the point where future planning takes a backseat to chasing success in the here and now. That means veterans and sometimes free agents. That alone is not a bad thing, but it means we're going to start seeing pieces get left along the way. More and more it looks like Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak could be the first of those big pieces.