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Armchair GM: Three Ways GM Jim Nill Can Win the Offseason with Better Results

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Nill doesn’t need to make a splash. His draft picks will help. But they still need a top six winger. It’s time to find out who’s expendable.

2016 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Forgive me, there’s some serious hubris going on with this title, but I’ll blame Sean Shapiro. Awhile back he recently engaged in a fun armchair GM exercise over at The Athletic. Because he’s a sharp guy, great writer, and all around stand up human being, I couldn’t wait to see what kind of lineup he had in mind for opening night.

For non-playoff teams (and writers covering non-playoff teams), this is classic “slow news day” filler, so now’s as good a time as any for cap-friendly fantasizing.

Alternate Universe 1: Hockey Trade for a Top Six Winger

So here’s Sean’s roster.

You asked me to play armchair GM, which is dangerous. But this is the lineup I would try to build for opening night.

Jamie Benn - Tyler SeguinAlexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark - Radek FaksaMark Stone

Jason DickinsonJason SpezzaRiley Nash

Gemel SmithRoope HintzTyler Pitlick

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg

Marc MethotStephen Johns

Miro HeiskanenJulius Honka

Ben Bishop

Michael Hutchinson

After some cap-friendly jiu jitsu, he gave up a bunch of forwards like Nichushkin, and Shore for Stone, and brought in a backup goaltender.

As something of a blue chip prospect in potato chip general managing, some of Sean’s ideas are really good (signing Hutchinson), and some ideas are questionable (trading Nichushkin) in my humble opinion.

The first red flag is Riley Nash. Despite his 40-point season for Boston (in which he shot a career high 13 percent), he’s a career 20-point player. Dallas already has plenty of those on the roster, and in the pipeline. He’s right about one thing though; Ottawa’s a good trade partner because they could use some centers. Devin Shore’s a good candidate. He has more points than their second and third line centers in Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zach Smith, and is younger to boot. Throw in a pick and/or one of Brett Ritchie and Remi Elie, and it’s possible there’s a deal to be made.

Dallas has no depth at wing, but their potential on the right side is better than their potential on the left, which is why I’d target Mike Hoffman (already a subject of trade rumors). Playing Radulov with Benn and Seguin has always felt like overkill. A move like this allows Faksa to try his hand at second-line duty with a pair of finishers rather than grinders. It could also bump Janmark down the lineup, but with a familiar friend so that his production won’t skip a beat. If Jim Nill’s true to his word about giving prospects a real shot, here’s my take:

Jamie BennTyler Seguin – Valeri Nichushkin

Mike Hoffman – Radek Faksa – Alexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark – Jason SpezzaDenis Gurianov

Gemel Smith – Jason Dickinson – Tyler Pitlick

Esa Lindell – John Klingberg

Marc Methot – Stephen Johns

Miro Heiskanen – Julius Honka

Ben Bishop

Michael Hutchinson

What I like about this lineup (other than that you have five of Jim Nill’s picks — not including Roope Hintz, who is potentially better than at least three forwards on that roster — which will give fans a better idea of his vision) is that it’s flexible without being disruptive. A lot of players can slot in different spots without losing the comfort of their natural positions (unlike this season). Spezza might have enough left in the tank to play second line center, and Faksa and Janmark already have their own chemistry if Faksa remained 3C. Gurianov’s readiness is irrelevant. He’s already scored more AHL points than either Elie or Smith at a younger age, but nobody considers them AHL fodder anymore.

Boston drafted not-Barzal too, but I’m sure it helps that Jake DeBrusk has been playing with David Krejci. I’ll never understand this notion that earning a roster spot means cracking a window on a fourth line. A roster is either fully optimized or it’s not. You either have a natural right winger who helps fuel the chemistry of a trio or you don’t. Chemistry is more important than balance every day of the week and twice on Sunday — in my opinion of course.

The important thing is that there’s a real top six, and your bottom six has the potential to play up the lineup rather than only down. If Hanzal returns, and one of Dickinson, Gurianov, or Hintz (or Smith, though I think he deserves a fourth line spot to begin the season) are struggling, they can be the scratch forward.

Why Hoffman over Stone? For one, his deal expires when Hanzal’s does, keeping nice symmetry with Nill’s cap management. Stone will get a bigger deal, but the kicker is that if the Dallas Stars ever want to find out what Nichushkin and Gurianov are truly capable of, they’re going to need to play them. Hoffman’s presence won’t hold any prospects back (and certainly not anyone ready to produce at his rate next season), and he also doubles as a critical plan B if Janmark’s knee becomes an issue (I hate to even think that, but it’s a cold hard truth).

Sean raises a good point about the third defensive pair — while some may want Heiskanen and Honka split, you’re grooming them to be your second pair, so shelter them early in order to unleash them later.

Alternate Universe 2: Get Another First Rounder (or Trade Up)

Conventional wisdom says that Dallas needs to take advantage of Benn and Seguin’s prime years. There’s nothing wrong with this line of thinking. However, immediate success should never come at the expense of future competitiveness. Not unless immediate success means a Stanley Cup. Right now, Dallas isn’t close to that. In addition, they have one more year of Spezza with still no replacement for a playmaking forward in sight. If they want to replace Spezza, they’re going to need to draft him.

In this universe, you add by subtracting. Dallas already knows what prospects like Shore, Ritchie, and Elie have. They’ve got full seasons under their belt in reasonable minutes (unlike Dickinson and Smith) with talented players — all have been given time with Seguin and Benn at some point, and not in insignificant minutes. In Mario Kart, a banana peel is fine if you’re in the lead, but when you’re trailing, get yourself a mystery box (like Hintz, Dickinson, and Gurianov). Dallas would be giving up very little in the grand scheme of things to make the grand scheme of things look much brighter.

As Derek and I have been writing about — this draft is deep. Ottawa, Philadelphia, Chicago, the Islanders, and the Rangers all have extra picks in the first round. At No. 13, Dallas could potentially grab a dynamic, playmaking center (like Joe Veleno), and then give up their second rounder and a prospect/player for a blueliner like Bode Wilde, Ryan Merkley (biggest wild card of the draft), or Calen Addison. Conversely, they could draft a blueliner at No. 13 (like Ty Smith), and then use the other pick on someone with Veleno’s potential, like center Jonatan Berggren, or Cole Fonstand. Or they could grab a set of really good wingers, like Joel Farabee and Martin Kaut. (Kaut is no joke; though his age plays a factor, check out this side by side by side next to Filip Chytil and Martin Necas.)

The impact of having forwards like that on Dallas’ roster in two years leaves the Stars in better shape than a hot UFA whose contract expires when a great prospect would have been ready to prove themselves on a longer timeline.

Could they trade up to score big? Sometimes the best offseason move is the one you draft. What would it take to move from No. 13 to No. 3, where Montreal is picking? It’s been two years since I’ve read more comments than I care to count about Julius Honka being expendable just because Dallas had a big year in 2015, and “we already have a puck mover.” This season was a case study in what happens when you have only one. (Not to mention a case study in what happens when you’re not scoring big in the draft, and patching star support with “veteran savvy” rather than young, hungry talent.)

Nonetheless, what would it take to get Montreal listening? Honka, and Dickinson, and — ? Shore and Lindell — ? That might sound silly (especially trading Lindell), but Montreal needs more help on the left side with Weber, Petry, and Juulsen on the right (so the ask likely wouldn’t start with Honka). If Dallas is all in on Heiskanen (and they have good reason to be), then Nill might feel he’s got his two most important defensive pieces. If that makes everyone else an asset, would it pay to consider the splash of getting Filip Zadina (a stickhandling sorcerer), Andrei Svechnikov (a scoring mage: assuming Carolina deflects—a possibility given how totally strange they sound right now), or Quinn Hughes (currently outscoring Cale Makar in the NCAA despite being very good defensively and a year younger)?

The other option is to give up a pick and a prospect to draft who they really want by moving up just a few spots: whether a quick dynamic center like Joe Veleno, or a big but fast defenseman in Noah Dobson. Nill did it last year for Jake Oettinger. Dallas has been stung by being not quite low enough to pick the surefire prospect, or high enough to avoid the burden of high expectations. As someone who wasn’t sure Miro Heiskanen was the right pick at the time, Dallas got it right and then some. The Stars see how much quicker prospects are developing (something Nill has explicitly acknowledged), so hopefully they’re looking at the draft as something like facial hairless free agency.

Alternate Universe 3: Don’t Do Much of Anything, Really

This is the most boring alternate reality, but hear me out.

If Dallas made zero trades, didn’t trade up in the draft, or get another first rounder, would the offseason be a loss? Activity is not the same as advancement. Dallas doesn’t need to make a big trade. The problem with the team in recent years has been their turnover rate. More than “taking awhile to learn a new system”, the real issue is having players come and go, leaving little room for long-term synergy and chemistry. Nill needs to gamble on his vision, because in truth, there’s actually little risk. The presence of Honka and Heiskanen should be enough to improve the blue line by a significant margin; at minimum, they won’t be 30th in the league at exiting the zone.

It might sound like a losing formula, but it’s not like the team’s previous formula has been much better. This is the universe where Nill does a full-scale evaluation of his vision, and his young talent. This is the universe where Dickinson, Hintz, Gurianov, Robertson, and Tufte are given real opportunity to prove themselves — not with a broken pool cue to see who draws first blood against their fellow prospects just to stand in line behind a veteran. That might sound bold, but their potential failure won’t hurt the team anymore than Ritchie, Elie, Roussel, and Hanzel’s lack of production did.

In this universe Dallas decides to take Jason Robertson and Nicholas Caamano’s near league lead in even-strength shots on goal and near league lead in even-strength dangerous shots on goal (respectively) for a spin. This isn’t an argument for Dallas to go Full Edmonton. It’s a matter of “I know who’s not in danger of becoming the next William Karlsson or Jonathan Marchessault, so let’s see what the next batch brings.”

How does this make the team actively better, though? Well, two reasons. It allows you to evaluate your prospects in tiers, and lets you know who’s expendable and who’s not, which will pave the way for the next generation (part of Dallas’ issue is that they’ve constantly kept prospects in a doorway they physically can’t walk through). The other is that extra cap can be its own reward. Remember, this season is awful for UFAs. However, in 2019 when Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson are potentially available? The metroplex isn’t exactly Toronto (though Doughty is a big fan of Benn, which may or may not hold as much weight as “coming home”), but if Dallas can stay competitive while keeping a versatile cap, we’ve already seen what the Stars can do when Tom Gaglardi decides to open the vault. Sometimes it pays to have cap space, like it did this season when Dallas had the money to outbid on Radulov (who was worth every penny).

I don’t believe in the current cliché that you know a defenseman is doing his job when you don’t notice him, but if there is any truth to that, maybe it’s true of general managing too. Nill’s already done a lot of work. Maybe now is the time to take a step back and see what that work can do. There’s a lot at stake for a franchise that continues to toil in the middle of the pack, so taking advice from a blogger with a barcalounger probably won’t hurt (you’re welcome, Jim).