Let's head back to the fall of 2013, when Jim Nill was only a few month into his tenure as Dallas Stars general manager.
Sure, he'd made some very, very large moves early in his tenure, the biggest of which was acquiring Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins. Any even though his team was off to a big of a rough start at 3-5-0, things were definitely looking brighter at the American Airlines Center than they had in a long while.
Even then, in an interview with ESPN.com, Nill said he knew it wasn't going to be his team's year quite yet.
"I’ve got to be honest: I think we’re going to turn the corner, but we’re probably two years away from what we should be," Nill said last week. "The core of the team is 20 to 26 years of age. That’s young. You give those guys two years to mature and what we have coming up in the system and I think in two years we’ll have a solid core. That’s how Stanley Cup champions are built. We are in the early stage, but we have the talent."
Of course, the Stars went on to surprise many by making the playoffs that season which only made the struggles of 2014-15 more frustrating. But with that short-term success, the overall timeline didn't change. Even now, the heart of the Stars core is 22-27 years old, with Jamie Benn being a relative senior citizen in that group by celebrating his 26th birthday about a week ago.
That may seem relatively young still, letting the Stars take more time to slowly build to a crescendo. But the analytics crunchers will tell you that the 22-26 age range, particularly for forwards, is the heart of the production prime. As Nill has said in his interviews both two years ago and now, the Stars are approaching things as if the team is entering the win-now stage this season.
So what does that mean from a personnel management?
The clues may be found in the Stars current roster design. Instead of leaving roster spots for prospects who are just about ready, the Stars are instead overstocking at most positions with a combination of home-grown talent and acquisitions. With the waiver eligibility rules being what they are, that means a young player will likely have to put on an undeniable performance in training camp to jump someone for an NHL spot.
Look at how the defense is currently structured. There are eight players with substantial NHL experience before you even get to the highly-touted, and apparently NHL-ready, Stephen Johns. Esa Lindell, who had a very strong 2014-15 and even stronger performance at the World Championships, is 10th on the depth chart even though he could probably push for a spot on a less deep team.
For the forwards, it's possible Brett Ritchie could start the season in the AHL in order to get the roster down to 23. None of the eight NHL-veteran defensemen and only three of the forwards are waiver exempt at this point - Ritchie, Valeri Nichushkin and Curtis McKenzie. Nichushkin isn't going down to get the roster down to size, and you can argue Ritchie's development is better served with a top-line role in the AHL rather than 10-12 minutes a night on the third or fourth line in the NHL.
So why not leave a developmental spot for Johns or Lindell or even a more evident, higher-minute role for a player like Jyrki Jokipakka? Why not leave a hole in the top six to be filled by Ritchie or Colton Sceviour to see what his game can do when playing high-end linemates?
That's where the idea of the open window comes in.
If the Stars were where they were two seasons ago, just putting things together and looking two years down the line, there probably would be a few more places for the unproven set. Antoine Roussel, as an example, had only 39 games of NHL experience entering 2013-14. Jordie Benn had 29. Ryan Garbutt had 56 and Cody Eakin 78, and all four had relatively large roles on the team.
That was a young team building for the future. This time around, less experienced players (Jyrki Jokipakka with 51 NHL games and Patrik Nemeth with just 30) are penciled into less prominent roles. Ritchie is probably projected on the fourth line at best at this point while Jokipakka, Nemeth, Oleksiak and Jordie Benn will likely fight for the fifth, sixth and seventh defenseman spots.
Instead of thinking only long-term, about what is best for individual player development and what will make the team better three years from now, the Stars are now thinking more about the immediate future. If a move makes them better this year or next, it has to be considered even if the opportunity cost might be an individual player's development.
Nill was a large part of the Red Wings machine of the 1990s and early 2000s, where they churned out elite team after elite team. That group was originally built from draft picks like Steve Yzerman, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom but brought over the top and sustained by shorter-term moves, like the acquisitions of Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov and Chris Chelios. Later, it was Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Dominik Hasek.
Those players were key to Stanley Cup winners, and they also took opportunities away from Red Wings prospects of the era.
How much the Stars copy this model is yet to be seen. It is obviously a different era, and the salary cap points to using internal development as a more important sustaining factor.
But there is some truth to the idea that if you're always preparing for three years from now, you'll miss the chance to be better right now. Both Nill's words and his actions seem to the point to idea that the Stars will start tiling the see-saw more to the side of immediate success and less to the side of looking to the future.