Having the ability or the potential to win a Stanley Cup in the NHL is such a fragile thing. There are just so many things standing in the way.
The obvious one is that there are 29 (soon to be 30) other teams trying to do the exact same thing. Ever see 30 piranhas go after a piece of meat in the water? Well don’t look it up, it’s terrifying.
Then you’ve got added factors, some forced by the league and some forced by the laws of nature. Injuries happen every season and many times crucial players are forced out of the lineup. You also have the NHL salary cap keeping your team in check and stopping you from forming an All-Star team. Unless you’re Chicago, of course. I haven’t even mentioned the constant threat of having players leave for snowier pastures out of nowhere.
Those are just a few of the reasons why Jim Nill’s job each offseason is not an enviable one. He’s got to juggle the salary cap when signing free agents and making trades. He has to project years in advance when determining what a player is worth and how many years they should get on their next contract. On top of that, he works with these players all of the time and no doubt has developed personal ties with people who he may unfortunately have to send packing. It’s a tough gig.
Still, it’s the job he is charged with and a job he has excelled at through his first few summers in Texas. There was something different about this summer though. Nill wasn’t the aggressive general manager we had seen in the past. It seemed as though he got caught in the middle of going for a championship and building for the future. The results from that have not been inspiring so far this season.
While there is obviously still hope, as the Stars are finally getting somewhat healthy, the honest look of this roster doesn’t scream Cup contender. It’s probably closer than it has looked this season, but it won’t be getting any easier in the years to come. He has set them up nicely up until this season, however.
The chart above shows general managers in the NHL and their acquisitions’ primary points per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. It subtracts the primary points/60 of players they have traded away, giving a differential. As you can see, Nill is second among NHL GM’s in acquiring top-end scoring talent while not giving up much in return. The data for that was prior to the start of this season.
He wasn’t able to find that impact this offseason and he allowed some key pieces to walk away. While Alex Goligoski is having a very forgettable start in Arizona, there is no denying his importance to both this team and John Klingberg. It was a huge blow to Dallas. Jason Demers was a big loss as well and he has continued to be relatively solid in Florida.
It’s pretty easy to see the dilemma for Nill. Goligoski received $5.475M per season for five years from Arizona and Demers picked up a contract worth $4.5M per season for five years. That’s a lot of change and lot of term. But they are excellent players, was Nill right to let them walk?
Well, for starters, there wasn’t a likely scenario where the Stars could have kept both of them. If you assume they receive the exact same contracts here, they would combine for almost $10M per season. Even if you take the Stars’ current cap space and throw out Hamhuis’ and Hudler’s deals there still wouldn’t be enough money to keep them both. Nill may have been able to find a way that would involve trading a forward with some salary but Goligoski and Demers would still put them right up against the cap, limiting Nill’s ability to make a potential trade for a goaltender.
Seeing how the right side of the defense has shaped up this season with Klingberg, Johns and now Honka, the loss of Demers looks manageable. The left side is a disaster and Goligoski could have been the piece to change that. Who knows what kind of impact he would have had on Klingberg as well. His contract was doable, although it could have hurt down the road. But isn’t that the gamble to make?
As I mentioned earlier, a championship window is a fragile thing. A high shooting percentage by a guy during a contract year and all of a sudden a Cup window potentially gets slammed shut. One simple thing like that can be the difference from being able to afford that key piece in a playoff run or not being able to afford them and missing the playoffs entirely.
When Nill arrived in Dallas, that window was well closed. In fact, there wasn’t a window at all. Instead of taking the time to measure out the cuts in the wall and pick out the right frame and glass (I have no idea how to build a window), Nill just barreled through the wall like the Kool-Aid man and created a window out of nothing. He was ultra-aggressive in acquiring Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, setting up Dallas for a big run. Then he trades for Kris Russell and all of a sudden he’s a little gun-shy.
Nill had two choices this offseason. Gamble with the future for success in the present. Or gamble with the present to try and set up the future. He went with the latter. It was really the toughest call he’s had to make since arriving here and it’s difficult to be too hard on a person who has quickly vaulted the Stars into a playoff contender.
That being said, we shouldn’t just ignore potentially poor decisions simply because of past success. Nill has had (and deserved) a lot of praise for the start he has had in Dallas. That doesn’t mean he can’t be criticized as well.
We’ll see if Nill’s gamble pays off. Who knows, maybe he has a couple more gambles up his sleeve for this year’s trade deadline. I wouldn’t put anything past him.