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What Jim Nill Does and Doesn't Have to Do This Offseason

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Being a GM is hard.

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Fans are kind of like obscure siblings of famous people.  Yes, Reuchlin and Lorin Wright were aware of what Orville and Wilbur were doing in Ohio and North Carolina, but they were much less likely to cheer them on at every turn than they were to recall their brothers' particular strengths and weaknesses.  Familiarity breeds criticism, if not always contempt.

With closer knowledge comes awareness of where improvement could happen, even when plenty has been accomplished already.  Fans are aware that the Stars had, by all accounts, a highly successful season and a fine-but-could-have-been-better postseason.  But fans of the 29 teams who lose don't spend their summers talking about how the same methods and personnel will just "do better" the next time around; we spitball, workshop, and theorize the obvious things a team must do in order to be that joyful 30th club next summer.  There is only ever One Goal, and fans will continue asking for change in response to falling short of that One Goal until the end of time.  That is our birthright.

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Jim Nill has said a lot of things since coming to Dallas.  A lot of the things he has said turned out to be true.  The Stars were looking to be competitive for the next five to ten years, and the Stars were willing to go through some growing pains while the foundation was built and known issues were addressed.

Here's what that foundation looks like now: Center depth? Check.  Number one defenseman?  Check.  All-world scoring depth?  Check.  Home record improved?  Check.  An overtime record that isn't terrible?  Check.  Make the playoffs?  Check.  Win a round?  Check.  Improved two-way play?  Czech.  Not surrendering goals when the other team pulls its goalie late in the third?  Check.  Don't let one goalie's abysmal season sink your team's hopes before game 82?  Check.  Top-ten special teams?  Check, with the caveat that most of us are convinced the Stars "should" be able to have the top-ranked power play even with an actual hibernating grizzly bear coaching the thing.

Jim Nill has also said a lot of other things.  Most will remember his declaration that the Stars were probably done making moves last summer before eventually signing Johnny Oduya.  Jim Nill was almost effusive in his praise of Trevor Daley at the end of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, only to turn around and trade him when the opportunity came along.

That said, a GM is much more likely to obfuscate and misrepresent his team's internal estimations than to outright volunteer a lie about what the team is going to do with specific players.  Everyone knows how the NHL works, of course—trades can happen at any time, to anyone—but when Nill says that Esa Lindell is slated to be an NHLer and that the Stars aren't going to buy out Kari Lehtonen, I'm inclined to think he's being honest in those specific cases, for now.

The ground's been covered, but you can see what that means for Dallas.  The Stars, as of today, have Johnny Oduya and a lot of young guys (Klingberg deserves his own category) on the blue line.  They are almost certain to get a veteran defender by hook or by crook, and I think that's one consequential thing you can bank on when Jim Nill says Lindell will be in the NHL until he shows he ought not to be.

Being a GM is in a lot of ways all about risk management.  Antti Niemi signing wasn't Plan A for Dallas, but when the Stars couldn't get a young goalie to potentially take the reins from Kari, they settled for bringing in someone who could at least reduce the Stars' chances of getting torpedoed by subpar netminding two seasons in a row.  Niemi did just that (albeit mostly in the first half of the season), and while it leaves the Stars with a bit of a contract pickle, you can understand why the Stars' season doesn't leave Jim Nill haggard with worry about what will happen if Dallas goes that route again to start the year.

Kari Lehtonen once again wasn't good for most of the regular season, and Niemi wasn't great in the last half of the season or in the playoffs, and they still managed to win 50 games.  The goalies picked (or propped) each other up, and while the overall numbers are bad and worrisome and all that, the Stars' system asks more of its goalies than, say, Nashville's (which also saw Rinne have an abysmal season, by the way).  And as a reminder, even with Kari's meltdown in the first period of Game 7 vs. St. Louis, he really did have a pretty average playoffs by NHL standards, which is to say a great run by recent Kari Lehtonen standards.  That success, at different times by the different goalies, reduces the urgency to make a change, making Nill less desperate than the national media says he should be to get a new goalie.  (Though I have little doubt the Stars are dead-set against having to hand Kari another critical Game 7 at this point.)

Because that's the thinking, right?  The Stars lost a Game 7 after their best option failed them in embarrassing fashion.  The overall numbers don't look good (it occurs to me that maybe we need "Relative" stats for Stars goalies to go with the Relative possession numbers for the skaters).  That meltdown means the Stars need to make a change now, consarn it, so they had better go grab Fleury or Reimer or Lundqvist to make sure that never happens again.  (After all, it's not like Marc-Andre Fleury or James Reimer has ever had a critical meltdown in the playoffs, right?  I mean, except for that one time, or that other time.)

Now, I'm not saying Fleury or Reimer or someone else wouldn't be an upgrade over what Dallas has now; either almost certainly would be.  But if you're a GM contemplating giving up assets or eating salary (and cap room) for a good long while, you aren't going to do it as a knee-jerk reaction.  Jim Nill has not been shy about acquiring new goalies every season he's been here, and this is the first time any of those moves even sort of worked.  The Stars can at least claim to be okay with starting the season as-is, and they can continue looking around for clear improvement while the goalies' remaining salaries get reduced every other Friday.  It's not the immediate fix most of us would love to see, but it doesn't look totally insane either.  It will look even less insane if Niemi has another solid autumn with Kari spelling him adequately.

Of course, the Stars "could" buy out Lehtonen or Niemi and free up a roster spot while amortizing part of a goalie salary and cap hit over the next four years, but that doesn't solve anything until you have your shiny new goalie ready to go.  Given the Stars' sweet salary cap situation for this year, they could trade for a third goalie at almost any point then finagle the salaries to make them work as needed down the stretch.  Urgency is good when it convinces you that improvement needs to happen, but urgency can be damaging when it forces you to label something as an improvement just because it's new.  Jim Nill created the possibility of a goalie jam when he signed Niemi; he's not going to abandon it one year (and a conference/division title) later without having a clear improvement ready.

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Risk management comes into play with the defense, too.  If Dallas has a rougher start this year—which is entirely possible, given how amazing last year's beginning was—you don't want to have Oleksiak, Nemeth, Johns and Lindell feeling Lindy Ruff's steely glare as points start to slip away.  Young players do well when they build confidence, and it's a lot easier to build confidence when you aren't forced to trust relative kids with big minutes in the Central Division.  Jim Nill will (probably) get someone he can trust to supplement that group, if for no other reason than to make sure he has options in case of injury or struggles. I'll make no mention of the fact that said Trusted Individual could be a certain 5'11" defender that a vociferous portion of the fanbase wouldn't trust to defend their Costco pizza slice from neighborhood pigeons.  (But hey, that's okay—maybe it'll be Jordie Benn instead.)

I'm moderately high on Dan Hamhuis, and a veteran righty for one or two years could also make sense, depending on when you expect Julius Honka to burst onto the scene.  The Stars would like some assurance of quality from the recently vacated spots on the blue line, and veterans do tend to offer assurance (even if they don't always make good on those promises, being flawed humans and all).  Am I saying they will sign Yannick Weber for one year?  I sort of hope not, but if it means Esa Lindell will be "comfortable" on the third pairing, who am I to argue?

Johnny Oduya was a fairly obvious signing that made sense last summer.  The Stars got a veteran with a defensive reputation (if not an entirely warranted one, statistically) for a term and price that made sense.  This time around, there are fewer clear options available, due in part to the fact that Patrik Nemeth and/or Jamie Oleksiak could feasibly take a step forward and lock down a roster spot.  The Stars are looking for an Anton Stralman and a sort of short-term Demers; there appear to be a lot of not-Stralmans and only a long-term Demers available.

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I don't like trade speculation all that much because it is a lot of work to do it justice.  It's easy to say "Dallas needs to trade for a top goalie!"  It's a lot tougher to come up with a package that two GMs would really like, explain why that beats what the other teams might reasonably offer, justify it in the context of both teams' cap situation and prospect depth, and show how it would be better than cheaper options in free agency or a team's own system.

Jim Nill doesn't have to do anything this summer, but it seems very likely that he will, because he always does.  The Stars are in a clearer situation than most teams when it comes to what they are likely to target for improvement, and it is fun to imagine how those improvements might happen.  But even with that clarity, any moves will be determined by opportunity and internal judgments.  Those are two things we usually find out only after the fact, but at least we can guess in the meantime.

The Stars "should" make changes that will make them better.  There are ways they could do that!  But you can come up with reasoning for why the Stars should or shouldn't make those changes now with relative ease.

If you value player development and future room for the kids, then you are probably okay with rolling some of the younger folks on the blue line this year.  If you think the Stars would be naïve to ask their goalies to improve behind John Klingberg and an assemblage of players needing to be sheltered, then you're probably going to be okay with any half-decent veteran the Stars can bring in.

If you look at Kari's save percentage over the last couple of years and Niemi's disappearance after New Year's, you might be almost frantic to get one or both of them out of here.  Alternatively, you might say that the Stars are going to make almost any goalie's stats worse, and that their system is built to overcome that quirk, and that Jeff Reese will finally perfect his magic Goalie Oatmeal that helped out Steve Mason.  In that case, you'd probably say it's foolhardy to spend more money or trade away assets in hopes of finding a Silver Bullet that might also underperform or even get injured, leaving you with another bad situation and even less flexibility than you have now.

Even this is a bit reductionist, of course. There are half-measures that could be taken on defense and in goal.  Jim Nill might stand pat for a while, only to make a huge move in November if things aren't peachy (or even if they are). We just don't know, but that's why armchair speculation is fun.  Our livelihoods don't depend on our Sports Decisions working out well, so we can value certain qualities more if they appeal to our own sensibilities and experience.  NHL GMs have a hard job, which is to say that most of them tend to get fired and run out of town after five years or so.  I want the Stars to make good trades and draft picks and signings that will improve the team now and for the next decade, but I am really glad I am not the one whose job rests on making that happen this year, or any year.