“They aren’t happy at all.”
That was Jim Nill during a recent Q&A with Sean Shapiro, as he referred to Tom Gaglardi and Dallas ownership. It’s the fifth year in Jim Nill’s tenure, and the excuses are slim now. The Dallas Stars will once again see the Stanley Cup playoffs - in all of their retro, psychedelic Bill Ward-inspired glory - move forward without being a challenge to other teams in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg’s prime years, thanks to a dump-and-chase system in a chase-and-possess world. If you clicked the second link, hopefully you’re less convinced that the Stars failed due to player leadership, exhaustion, or injuries.
Since I’ve already discussed Ken Hitchcock, now’s a good time to go up the chain of command, and ask Jim Nill some hard questions.
My own opinion is that Nill is a good general manager; his big moves in past years have paid off. Jason Spezza was incredibly productive for several seasons. Alexander Radulov is a spark plug in ways usually reserved for knuckle-draggers, but isn’t. He caught GM Peter Chiarelli sleeping, but Stars fans won’t complain about seeing Tyler Seguin in victory green, scoring goals, and holding a t-shirt gun (assuming he isn’t dismayed by Dallas’ failures). In addition to this, Nill’s medium moves have rectified big problems. He’s shored up secondary scoring (Ales Hemsky and Patrick Sharp), defense (Dan Hamhuis, and Marc Methot), and even goaltending (Ben Bishop, and well - Ben Bishop). Plus, credit where credit’s due regarding John Klingberg’s contract; it was a shrewd business move that other GMs didn’t mind copycatting.
However, general managers are not paid to simply sign big contracts. They’re paid to grow them too. And that process begins with the draft, where drive-through money can come back to haunt teams down the line.
It’s here, with the small moves, where I think Nill has struggled. It was obvious last season that certain prospects were on the cusp: Jason Dickinson, Gemel Smith, Remi Elie, Devin Shore, and since he got called up - Denis Gurianov even. Some of them played a string of games, but only because Dallas suffered an apocalyptic string of injuries (they were sixth in 2016-2017 in cap-to-injury; this season they’re basically bottom ten, which highlights what an empty talking point this is). That’s because Nill went out and signed Adam Cracknell, Jiri Hudler, and Lauri Korpikoski; odd moves even at first glance, but look far worse in retrospect.
There’s always a refrain here - that prospects need to open the door for themselves - but this response doesn’t clarify anything. It just highlights a problem of dissonance. Prospects are no different than veterans; they experience highs and lows. By giving prospects an arbitrary window to “prove themselves”, the message is not that you need to be good, but that you need to be timely. You need to score when you’re in the lineup, and if you’re not scoring, don’t “eat minuses” because this isn’t “tryouts.”
However, that doesn’t tell us much. It also has the unfortunate side effect of giving veterans - often less effective as time goes by - a longer leash. All of this feels obvious, that experience alone is not synonymous with effectiveness, that veterans shouldn’t play through mistakes without repercussion the way prospects often do, but it’s hockey’s version of a big fortune cookie. That might sound harsh, but how else to explain why a player as gifted as Tyler Johnson had teams forfeiting their picks just to skip him - simply because he wasn’t tall enough?
It’s hard for prospects to walk through the door when nobody’s giving them a key.
And right now they don’t have the keys. Compare Julius Honka’s doorway to comparable rookie defensemen. Compare Jake Guentzel’s path to Pittsburgh, and time on ice to Jason Dickinson’s doorway. Why was Jim Lites talking about the critical importance of replacing Cody Eakin - explaining why they signed Martin Hanzal no less - when they already had four centers (if we include Cracknell, who played center intermittently) with more points than him in 2016-2017? Is that why Radek Faksa, a player getting Selke consideration no less, was given tweener minutes early this season, and couldn’t be overloaded?
This isn’t me trying to blame Ken Hitchcock. The New York Rangers had this problem with Alain Vigneault’s inexplicable treatment of Pavel Buchnevich, and his inconsistent player development. The fallout, to quote our blue shirt friends, was that “Vigneault never found a single reason to blame himself. So Jeff Gorton had to do it for him.”
Like New York, another team coming off a disappointing season, the organization needs to commit to a philosophy. Either adopt the vision Nill has already laid out, or reject it. Without everyone on the same page, responsibility can be arbitrarily shuffled around while the problem remains undiagnosed.
Nill’s vision isn’t a magical stone on a cosmic glove, or cryptic etchings on the Ark of the Covenant. By drafting burly north-south wingers like Jason Robertson, Valeri Nichushkin, Riley Tufte, Denis Gurianov, and Jason Dickinson with puck-moving defensemen - Honka, and Miro Heiskanen namely - Dallas should resemble a team that focuses on moving the puck out from the defensive zone with speed, and maintaining offensive zone possession with size.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing none of that vision; a vision even Dallas media has identified as being very clearly fractured. Not having homegrown talent play and play consistently hurts a franchise, especially through roster turnover that leaves a team constantly having to adjust (this year was a good example as the team went from quick possession hockey to slow dump-and-chase). This also hurts the team through leaving prospects out of the system’s loop at the highest levels of hockey, and through not giving them room to learn at the NHL level. And finally, it hurts the team through another area GMs must manage - the cap. As long as young, cheap talent can make a difference, loaded veteran contracts that turn ugly in their final years won’t be the difference between winning and losing.
Is there a solution? I think so.
The first is to find a coach not just on the same page as their GM, but who is willing to blame themselves; the way John Tortorella did. The other? Don’t win another offseason. If you can pull another ‘your shoelaces are untied’ prank on Boston, sure, do it. But Dallas already has their most important veterans leading the way. Not all the kids are alright. If they were, the team would be too. Those who aren’t (like Brett Ritchie), or those who have value to other teams (Devin Shore), trade them, even if it’s just to move up in the draft to get a player that could potentially make a difference as early as next season. That’s how you win the offseason, with internal answers, not mercenaries.
And when you draft, don’t get distracted by the rankings and dismiss those rankings just because you’ve been following one guy more closely than others. Find the guy every team wants to be their guy. Then give that player a chance to succeed, and if they struggle, just hope for the best. And when they’re on the cusp, don’t pick them off the ground. Pluck them at their highest.
Maybe that’s not a solution. Maybe it’s just SB Nation’s version of a fortune cookie. But that could be good enough to help make a difference. It shouldn’t be good enough for a franchise as hot-and-cold as Dallas has been for the last decade. Nill’s is an intelligent GM, and I sometimes wonder if his first season took him too much by surprise. That was a team that was young, but suddenly successful, and so the pressure to take advantage of Benn and Seguin’s prime manifested itself via support through traditional means (such as Stanley Cup winners, and “glue guys”), rather than to push prospects into significant roles.
Fine, I can accept that. However, right now the man with the keys is Nill. It’s time for him to go all in with his vision, meaning his prospects are playing, and there’s no interference from coaching or ownership to get in his way - if just for one season. With Nichushkin, Heiskanen, Honka, Dickinson, and one of Jason Robertson, Riley Tufte, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, or their 2018 pick ready to break through, next season should be called Nill’s team. And my stars, what a team that could be.