Note: This is the final part of a series looking at Jim Nill's moves prior to the 2016 trade deadline. Part 1 may be found here. Part 2 may be found over here. Part 3? I dunno, try clicking here or something. Part 4 is here, and it's definitely one of the top five of the parts.
First off, let's just get it out of the way:
One doesn't have to be Leap Day William to know that February 29th will be a big day for hockey fans. The trade deadline this way comes, and we've already seen some big moves before crunch time.
In fact, the biggest move of all might have been Dustin Byfuglien's extension with Winnipeg. It was widely assumed that the Jets' indecision with Andrew Ladd and Byfuglien was the crusty ketchup blocking the rest of that corn syrupy sweet trade market, but now that Byfuglien's staying in Winnipeg for a while, things are going to start happening. Indeed, they already have.
For Stars fans, it's hard not to be excited. Jim Nill's trade history is more or less brilliant, and rare has been the move that hasn't given Dallas a new player to love. Demers, Janmark, Spezza, Sharp, Peverley and Seguin are some pretty decent nameplates to add to your locker room stalls in two years' work.
As much as you might be tempted to start going shopping in Fantasy NHL Costco for Brent Burns and Alex Edler though, we're trying to stay in the Galaxy of Possibility. So you can just leave your ludicrous nine-player deal for Dion Phaneuf at the door, okay? (Can't believe how many fake accounts are out there these days, smh.)
Jim Nill's time in Dallas hasn't been all trades, of course. Sure, entry-level contracts aren't the richest barley from which to glean portents of blockbuster trades, but we're trying to get an idea of Nill's thought process here. Extensions, UFA signings and other sundry negotiations all provide us different cracks though the mustachioed blinds into the house of the ten-year plan we've been hearing about for a little while now.
For the final time, I will beg your forbearance. This is not an exact science here, and I would fully expect someone else to come to different conclusions based on Nill's history. I'm only trying to be honest and logical here in an effort to stay somewhat grounded as the trade deadline approaches. Yes, that usually works. Anyhow, please feel free to present your own conclusions as well. They may not be the same as mine!
Okay then, let's summarize these brain nuggets:
The Salary Cap Dictates Everything
Through all his time in Dallas, Jim Nill has been almost obsessed with keeping salary cap flexibility. He's been more than happy to shell out large money and longer-term deals, but Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin's contracts have set the framework within which he's operated. Sharp, Oduya and Hemsky's combined $13.65 million cap hit comes off the books when Benn is up for a new deal; Spezza's $7.5 million will be up when Seguin's current BOGO runs its course. There's other stuff in there, of course, but you can see the numbers adding up.
Pierre LeBrun mentioned that the Stars had looked into acquiring Phaneuf last year, but that the Leafs would have had to retain salary for Dallas to consider it. You saw Nill get San Jose to retain some of Demers's already-reasonable salary, and you saw Nill retain less salary than that in order to make the Vaunted Ryan Garbutt Trade work. Cap dollars equal flexibility, and that is a lethal weapon in a savvy GM's arsenal. If Jim Nill makes a big trade, you can be sure that it won't see Dallas acquiring an anchor of a contract, no matter who's going the other way. Besides, the Senators appear to have cornered the "grab that terrible contract and grab it fast!" market anyway.
Implications: This is why Brent Burns is so appealing, even if there's almost zero reason for San Jose to trade him at this point as they sit in the likely playoff picture. One+ year is an infinitely manageable term for a 30-year-old defenseman--especially when he's one of the very best there is. Burns would give Dallas a top-shelf defense overnight, and his limited term would allow the Stars to evaluate their up-and-comers with patience. Jim Nill likes patience.
Absurd Speculation: Victor Hedman and Kevin Shattenkirk are UFAs in 2017 along with Burns. Just saying.
Contract Extensions Happen Early, if At All
John Klingberg and Cody Eakin's deals didn't have to happen when they did. In Klingberg's case, it was only 65 games into his NHL career. In Eakin's case, there was a whole 'nother year of less than-$2 million hockey in which to evaluate the Stars' favorite salt of the earth forward. Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt were likewise not on the cusp of free agency when Nill inked them for another few years.
Vernon Fiddler and Patrick Eaves, by way of contrast, returned to Dallas after July 1st. Yes, their circumstances were different, but Jim Nill was not going to overpay in order to ensure that Dallas would retain either forward. Part of this was knowing the market for those players, and part of it was simply building a team that players would want to come back to. Extension talks for veteran players usually involve multiple years, especially for players with families who don't want the late-career uncertainty that comes with switching teams every year. So far, the only veteran we've seen Jim Nill extend has been Jason Spezza, and even that happened almost immediately after the trade (relatively speaking).
Implications: Don't expect Jason Demers, Jordie Benn or Alex Goliogski to be extended at this point. True, how the trade deadline shakes out could change Nill's tactics in a hurry, but you'd be a fool to think he hasn't already decided which player(s) he would like to keep, and for what terms. The fact that those deals haven't been made yet (that we know of) suggests that Nill is okay with risking free agency if they players want more than the Stars' plan can accommodate.
Also, you can probably start sending your "thanks for the memories" gift baskets to the pending UFA depth forwards as well, though I could see Sceviour (and Eaves to a lesser extent) coming back on a one-year deal after testing the market.
The Devil You Know
The Cody Eakin and Jason Spezza extensions are nine years of gambling by the characteristically cautious Nill. In Spezza's case, the gamble is on health and scoring sustainability; with Eakin, Nill bet on a higher ceiling than we've seen so far. But in both cases, Nill had a well-founded baseline of performance to look at before making the deals.
The Antti Niemi deal was a bit more of a gamble, but goaltender performance is at least somewhat forecast-able (Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen notwithstanding) over a larger body of work (game-to-game performance, of course, is sorcery). Nill chose to lock down a goalie with a long history of stable play rather than play the goalie-go-round again with another backup.
Jim Nill, like any good manager, values knowing the value of his assets. Locking down pieces that he values minimizes uncertainty while giving the team more room to experiment. The Ales Hemsky signing has been an interesting one as we pass its halfway mark, but you can be sure that Nill doesn't make that deal without Nichushkin, Eaves and Brett Ritchie available for RW duty as well. Jim Nill does not put all his eggs in one basket. (Two baskets, maybe.)
Implications: As mind-blowing as it would be for Jim Nill to swoop in and grab Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Stars don't need to bet $6 million through 2021 on a center. That's one heck of a big money, long-term obligation for a position the Stars are okay at for the next few years, especially with options like Dickinson, Shore and Faksa all looking ready for NHL duty next year or sooner.
Absurd Speculation: But wait! With the many options at center, Dallas absolutely can afford to take a moonshot at grabbing one of the best young centers around in RNH. Even if he doesn't fulfill his destiny, the Stars have many other options to fill his shoes. And with the Oilers allegedly having offered RNH to Nashville in a Seth Jones proposal, it's not like you're asking for an unobtainable player, right? One thing's for sure: this would be the most Jim Nill of deals so far (in 2016).
Jim Nill Will Pay What It Takes to Get the Player He Wants
The Stars paid a steep price for Tyler Seguin. They may end up having paid dearly for Jason Spezza, depending on whether Nick Paul can ever push past Kyle Turris in order to make his NHL debut. And losing Brenden Dillon was still the most immediately painful transaction I've experienced since Nill took over (though the deal certainly looks great now).
When it comes right down to it, Jim Nill has not hesitated to unload a lot of assets in order to meet a significant team need elsewhere. The center position was embarrassingly thin going into summer 2013, so Nill went and got three of them. Dallas needed scoring depth behind their top line, so Nill picked up Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza in subsequent summers. The Stars needed right-handed defensemen, so Nill took on Travis Moen for Gonchar to make room for a right-handed defenseman; he then gave up a good young player in Brenden Dillon to get another (and made sure to grab Stephen Johns in the Sharp trade later on).
That Patrick Sharp trade, of course, is a glaring exception. It was that rare occasion when a team unloaded a player that clearly didn't fit (Daley) and a player they had grown disenchanted with (Garbutt) in exchange for two glaring needs: a high-scoring winger (Sharp) and a prospect that supplemented a thin pool (right-handed defenseman with size). For such a sweet deal to go down, the Stars had to be patient, hoping that Chicago wouldn't get a better offer elsewhere as the Hawks sought to create cap room. Jim Nill gambled and won, and the Stars have been better off this year because of it.
So if Dallas is to make a significant move, you can hardly count on Sharp-level robbery to happen again. Indeed, for Jim Nill to acquire a building block that can get Dallas deep into the playoffs (if you don't think they're there already), the cost will be steep.
Implications: Good luck putting together any kind of franchise-bettering deal that doesn't involve one or more of Nichushkin, Honka, Lindell or Oleksiak (and more). You are not going to be 100% glad to see Dallas lose the players they will give up in any such trade, because other teams sort of have to justify the trade themselves. Salary isn't as big a factor at the trade deadline unless you're talking about unloading multiple years of it, and Dallas appears unwilling to take on significant cap commitments for the long term.
Doubly Absurd Speculation: Jacob Trouba.
Now hear me out. I know he's in the division, and I know Winnipeg would be foolish not to retain him if they can. Sure, they have Myers, Byfuglien, Enstrom and Stuart locked up for a few years, but young defensemen are a most precious commodity, and literally every team wants a player like Trouba.
This leads me to believe that there are only two ways Trouba moves: A Travis Hamonic trade with New York, or a Dougie Hamilton-level disconnect between Trouba's $56 million, 8-year demands and what Winnipeg is willing to pay him.
Or...(and keep that klaxon going)...both.
Three-team trades are uncommon, but they happen. And if the Jets and Isles can't come to agreement on how to make the swap work, would Dallas be able to insinuate themselves into the conversation? If Winnipeg gets Hamonic, they have a great young defender signed to essentially the Cody Eakin deal. If Dallas gets Trouba and pays up (say, six years at $7.25 million AAV), they suddenly have two of the best young righties in the NHL locked up for years and years and years to come. And if any team has the money on defense to do it, it just might be Dallas. They also have the prospects to get New York to consummate such a transaction (which is to say bye-bye to Julius Honka and at least one more player from a list of Dallas's top prospects should such a deal go down). There would be little sweeteners here or there, but you can see it happening since New York is going to trade Hamonic (it is widely assumed) regardless.
The other reason I don't see this trade and a large Trouba extension (assuming you having laughed yourself into the sanitarium while reading this) to be completely impossible is the simple fact that the Stars have shown a willingness to overpay complementary pieces when they're getting a bargain out of a primary player. And Klingberg is just that, and no mistake. In some circles, you would worry about player A being upset that player B is making more than he is, but if anyone could smooth things over with his personnel in that situation, Jim Nill would be my bet to do it.
Obviously we are guessing, just like all of you are. The most plausible Jim Nill move is one we haven't yet landed on, because he's more aware of what other GMs are thinking than most of us can be. But if there were ever a time to start getting creative (and realistic) with your proposals, it might be now. The trade market is wide open for business, and Jim Nill has shown an ability to make things happen. Usually, they have been very good things.