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How Jim Nill Went from Top GM to Hot Seat Candidate

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For the first few years of Jim Nill’s tenure, he was the envy of teams around the league. What happened?

2007 NHL Entry Draft Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As you heard long before today, Peter Chiarelli has finally been fired in Edmonton. This has led to the usual rounding up of his mistakes, with few equaling the Tyler Seguin trade. There are other Chiarelli moves that stand out—boy howdy, are there others—but the one I keep coming back to, the one most eminently avoidable, is the Milan Lucic deal.

As some guy named Pat Iversen wrote at the time of the Lucic signing:

Soon after the market opened, the Edmonton Oilers came to terms with winger Milan Lucic on a new contract that makes him one of the highest-paid wingers in the NHL. The deal lasts seven years and will pay him $42 million, according to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos.

The Oilers reportedly beat out a host of suitors, including the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver has signed Loui Eriksson instead. Lucic has spent the last few seasons with the Los Angeles Kings.

That tidbit about the Stars’ pursuit of Lucic has merit, both from what I heard then and since. Coming off a second-round loss to the Blues after finishing atop a very tough Western Conference, the Stars organization perceived itself as in need of playoff-caliber individuals, and Lucic appears to have been a primary target for them. But, in a nice piece of poetic justice, Peter Chiarelli again hurt his own team (and helped Jim Nill) by accomplishing his objective, signing Lucic to a contract that already ranked among the league’s worst barely a season into it. If anyone is going to miss Peter Chiarelli as much as the New York Islanders, it might be Jim Nill.

Chiarelli seemed a promising candidate for the Oilers’ GM position when he was hired, at least by some. He arrived with a Stanley Cup ring from his success in Boston, and the Oilers were hoping to build a team with a similarly imposing style, composition, and yes, culture. But it wasn’t so much Chiarelli’s inability to make the right moves that ended up costing him his job so much as it was his inability not to make the wrong ones, with his latest likely boondoggle coming in the very week of his dismissal.

Jim Nill and Peter Chiarelli looked so different back in 2013, when the Bruins were looking for pieces to better fit the hardworking style they valued so much and the Stars were just looking to upgrade their organization’s center depth from its status of “Jamie Benn and Some Other Guys, Maybe.” But how did Nill go from launching his team into the playoff picture the very season after his arrival by taking a player Chiarelli criminally undervalued to getting in a bidding war with Chiarelli for one of the most overrated players in free agency just three years later?

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NHL general manager rankings over the years have seen Nill’s tenure as a GM correspond roughly in the arc of the Dallas Stars’ fortunes. After three straight summers spent taking advantage of other teams by dealing for Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Patrick Sharp, most saw Nill as an above-average to top-tier GM. But after the injury-riddled 2016-17 season was followed by the Ken Hitchcock hiring and subsequent failure to make the playoffs in a year without numerous injuries as an excuse, Jim Nill suddenly found himself being grouped with the likes of Dale Tallon, Don Sweeney, Chuck Fletcher and Jarmo Kekalainen. Nill’s most recent move, in fact, was to undo the Jamie Oleksiak trade from last year. That, along with the two other trades for third-pairing defensemen Dallas has made this season, is a far cry from summers and seasons past.

It was a tumultuous ride for the Stars, coming from bankruptcy and the fringes of NHL relevancy to the leading edge of the modern NHL in just a couple of years. From the playoffs (barely) in Nill’s first season, to just missing out, to being the number one seed, to winning a draft lottery, and so on. They’ve been there and back again, again and again.

The Jim Nill Era of the Dallas Stars has been a fascinating one, events elsewhere in the front office notwithstanding. And, as someone who once wrote like 15,000 words about Jim Nill’s every move with the Stars leading up to the 2016 trade deadline, I find it rather convenient that, three years later, we can divide Nill’s moves into pretty consistent groups pre- and post-Leap Day of that same year.

I should add a caveat that it’s easy to improve when you’re starting from the bottom of the barrel (well, unless you’re the Oilers). When you’re on the outside looking in, one great trade can take your team from mediocre to good-enough, and boom: you’re in the playoffs. Jim Nill was playing with house money for the first couple years, and in some ways, that could be seen as inflating perceptions of his work at the time (though I still think his moves in those first few years were largely great and deserving of the accolades he got for them). But as things things improve, so grows the measuring stick. Successful people must continually bear the increasing weight of their own expectations.

Incidentally, Jim Nill was signed to a five-year extension (through the 2022-23 season) on January 8, 2016, just seven weeks before that Leap Day we’re using as a line of demarcation. I don’t think that meaningfully changed Nill’s view of his team or anything, but it does stick out a bit more when we look at the moves made before and afterwards. Thus, if we take 2/29/2016 as a rough line in the sand, I believe we can see two very different Jim Nills at work before and after.

So, if there’s a thesis here, it’s this: Ultimately, I believe the Stars faltered when Jim Nill stopped trying to build the team into a consistent contender and started looking for the missing pieces that would make it a Stanley Cup favorite.

The moves made by Nill reflect this, I think. The Kari Lehtonen thud of a playoff loss to Ken Hitchcock and the Blues in game seven left a bitter taste in the Stars’ collective mouth. We’ve been over it again and again. At that point, the organization as a whole—we know Jim Nill isn’t the only one making those decisions, but he is still the GM, and as such, bears the most accountability for personnel moves unless we know otherwise for certain—walked away from that series and determined to become more playoff-ready.

Dallas made an offer to extend Kris Russell while letting Jason Demers walk. They went out and signed Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikoski as low-money veterans, trusting that the team as a whole could continue to be a dominant force in the Western Conference. They finally got Dan Hamhuis just to stick it to Vancouver once and for all. Not bad moves, but not exactly make-or-break ones, either. That year’s World Cup of Hockey led to the team stumbling out of the gate, with injuries to Ales Hemsky, Radek Faksa, and Tyler Seguin all affecting a team suddenly without much transition from its blue line on out. Devin Shore and Esa Lindell were given serious looks out of necessity, and while they didn’t crumble, they also weren’t capable of carrying a team that didn’t know what to do when adversity overwhelmed it.

Heck, that 2016-17 year was a mindfreak for a couple of the prospects, too. Julius Honka didn’t see meaningful time in Dallas until the season was a loss, but even so, his 16-game chunk that year was a high point for him, as he averaged nearly 17 (productive!) minutes a night in his rookie campaign. He probably won’t hit the 14’ mark in Dallas again. And Jason Dickinson only played 10 games in Dallas in 16-17. Hindsight makes one wonder what rewards the Stars might have been reaping if Honka and Dickinson had been given the level of trust Devin Shore and Esa Lindell were given that year, but it’s apples and oranges now, so let’s skip it.

Anyway, we’re talking about Jim Nill. The Nill of 2013 saw a team with gaping holes, and he acquired a bushel of centers (one far more elite than the rest) to fill them while grabbin Sergei Gonchar to steady things a bit behind Daley and Goligoski, with mixed success. The Nill of 2014 created a high-quality second line with Spezza and Hemsky, and Nill then jumped to upgrade his blueline by getting Jason Demers in a steal of a deal. The Nill of 2015 got a scoring winger in Sharp, some veteran stability on the back end in Johnny Oduya, and a defenseman their system needed. A lot of that was opportunity, sure; if Nill had managed to land Erik Karlsson or/and(!) John Tavares this past summer, perhaps his reputation looks a lot different. But the cold, hard fact is that Tavares didn’t see a reason to consider Dallas over a successful rebuild story like Toronto. The cold, hard fact is that the Stars failed to amass enough of a prospect pool to convince Ottawa to trade with them instead of San Jose. For these and other reasons, Jim Nill’s efforts to continue reupholstering the Dallas Stars have largely faltered after February 2016, and as much as I still want to believe there’s a savvy GM lurking in Frisco ready to remind us of why we all felt so lucky to have him in charge half a decade ago, the facts are the facts: the front office moves haven’t often been good for nearly three years now.

You can’t make a massive splash every year no matter how great of a GM you are, but that doesn’t mean you have to made unhelpful moves in the meantime, either. Of course it’s not fair to ask where the Spezzas and Seguins of the last three years have been—though if you were to ask anyway, Alex Radulov is the only answer—when those players just aren’t available that often. But there was hope that the fabulous trades Nill made in his first couple of years in Dallas were evidence of a broader genius at play, not just a bit of opportunity meeting with a bit of cash and a GM willing to answer the phone.

Now here we are, looking at 2.5 years of Jim Nill looking for the final piece to make the Stars significant again as new chasms continue to erupt beneath the team he thought he had finishing rebuilding three years ago. Much as Karlsson or Tavares might have papered over the growing holes in this team and organization, the fact that those moves were seriously attempted to begin with (and sorely missed now) shows just how far Dallas’s rebuild still has to go. That’s a sobering thought when one thinks about how good things were not even three seasons ago. I don’t think 2015-16 was a fluke, but perhaps things going so well convinced Jim Nill and the entire leadership team that they could do no wrong. Theirs was only to use their perspicacity to outsmart the other teams, and victory would follow in its course, so long as they patched the holes.

Then suddenly victory was gone, and everything was miserable. Cody Eakin wasn’t scoring at all, the penalty kill was historically awful, and the goaltending was collapsing even faster than they’d suspected it might. The team tried to continue looking for one or two final pieces while also changing coaches because, well, things were bad now, and someone had to be held responsible. And not just changing coaches, by the way, but changing from Lindy Ruff’s “future of the NHL” approach into the check-for-chances system that asked everyone to turn their compass upside down. Players can do this, given enough time, and the Stars still weren’t a dreadful team last year by any means; but a less dynamic system exposed the persistence of problems thought to have been fixed long ago, and that’s where the New Jim Nill really came into focus. Without a clear-win of a goalie move available, why not grab the goalie that was good for a great team a little while ago in Ben Bishop? It was done. And why not grab a defensive specialist whose game also seemed great for the playoffs despite his prime fading?

The New Jim Nill approach to fixing the second line was to replace an aging Spezza with a late-career Martin Hanzal, because it’s a move that was there to be made. Rather than focus on how Dallas’s goalscoring had dropped to 18th in the NHL during 2016-17, the Stars paid high prices for Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal to fix the defensive game, hoped that Tyler Pitlick would be as lucky a lottery ticket as Patrick Eaves despite a far lesser pedigree and skillset—Pitlick is a fine player for the money, but he never had Eaves’s tools despite a nice goals total in 2017-18—and finally, realizing that Sharp and Hemsky were gone and no real scorers had materialized in the meantime, Nill backed the money truck up to Alex Radulov with the cap space still remaining thanks to years of great cap management. It’s been his best move for three years. It may also be his only really great move of that time, too.

The season under Hitch was up-and-down to start, but some good work a little while before the trade deadline convinced the Stars that they could stand pat and still see a proof-of-concept showing the playoffs. We know how that ended, and another firestorm resulted, with another coaching change and more personnel upgrades following in due course.

The New Jim Nill looked at the 2018 Dallas Stars, and he took what was available: he signed Blake Comeau and Roman Polák, and got Anton Khudobin to replace Kari Lehtonen. Like the summer before, one of those players ended up being a great get, with the other two being somewhat less than that, albeit useful in limited roles. Polák is, like Pitlick last year, useful but relied upon more than he should be; Comeau is, like Hanzal last year, unable to produce enough to make his secondary talents worthy of the ice time coaches always give to veterans.

Nill was willing to throw grenades in his first three years in order to make the team better because that’s what the team needed. In his next three years, he’s opted to be more marksmanlike. In fact, Jim Nill has only traded away two assets (that is, two players or one player and one pick in the same package) twice since January 2016: in the Kris Russell trade and the Marc Methot trade. Other than those two moves, Dallas has largely stuck to one-for-one deals (or one-for-two, as with the Jordie Benn/Greg Pateryn trade). Jim Nill has gone from Pretty Woman Shopping Montage Mode to, like, My Brother When He Spends Five Years Deciding What Camera To Buy Mode©.

Again, we must needs include the caveat that Nill has certainly been willing to make such moves, as we saw this summer with Erik Karlsson. But where his trading spirit may have been willing, the roster’s flesh has been too weak in the eyes of other GMs. Jim Nill shrewdly traded Nick Paul, Brenden Dillon and Loui Eriksson when each player’s value was at its peak. But here we are today, having watched first-round pick Julius Honka overripen into roster guacamole and Jamie Oleksiak get handled like a glorified waiver claim candidate.

Jim Nill’s big moves these days aren’t big swings. Even Radulov was just money, and money can be managed. Tyler Seguin was a huge risk at the time, even with the attendant skills, and Nill waved aside those risks and traded one of the Stars’ best players because the Stars had to swing big. We’ve been reduced to seeing how much Dallas is going to pay for Wayne Simmonds, because hey, he’s another Sure Thing, right?

Take Reilly Smith, for instance. He was more or less in Jason Dickinson territory: when traded by Dallas, Smith was 22 years old and had played 40 games for Dallas, and he had undergone some scoring struggles at the NHL level: Smith scored 3 goals in his first 40 games in Dallas, while Dickinson scored 3 goals in his first 38. Dallas was willing to include Smith to get the deal for Seguin done, but the Stars supposedly decided not to include Dickinson in trade talks during last year’s yo-yo of Dickinson between Cedar Park and Dallas, even with Hitchcock refusing to give Dickinson an extended look in the big leagues. That’s not to say that Dickinson could have gotten, say, Max Pacioretty, but it does seem to indicate a Stars’ front office that has grown more risk-averse as time goes by when it comes to letting its players go elsewhere. Even now, Dallas is said to fear losing Brett Ritchie for nothing by sending him through waivers, and this is clearly Dallas’s least-trusted forward for the whole season now. If the Stars don’t think they can find another Brett Ritchie when they need it, they have far bigger problems.

Maybe it’s going to end up looking great for Dallas if Dickinson develops into even a poor man’s version of Smith in-house. But these days, five will get you ten that Nill won’t be here to see it happen, given both the timeline of Dallas development and the likelihood, in Jiim Lites’s words, that the Stars will “run through a GM” if the results don’t arrive soon.

I really do believe Jim Nill is a good GM, or at least that he can be. But when a team stops being willing to trade its good pieces because they think they’re what make it great, you’re going to have a dickens of a time making effective trades.

Radek Faksa, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Jason Dickinson, and Gavin Bayreuther, even. These are players that can get good trades going without leaving unsolvable problems in their wake. Jim Nill held on to Honka in 2015 when the Rangers wanted him for Cam Talbot, and the fallout from that is still being reckoned. What we do know is that the Stars wound up paying Antti Niemi, their Plan B after not getting Talbot four years ago, to beat them on New Year’s Eve just a few weeks ago.

So, who really knows? Maybe the Sergei Gonchar trade is the Blake Comeau signing, or maybe the Dillon/Jason Demers trade is the Devin Shore/Andrew Cogliano trade. Maybe Jim Nill has been Jim Nill all along when it comes to trades and signings, and the Stars are just dealing with the realities of poor drafting and archaic player evaluation and team construction. Certainly Dallas is not investing the same level of interest and resources into advanced player analysis that Toronto has been doing since Kyle Dubas took over. Jamie Oleksiak is not a player that solves any problem the Stars have other than the one they can see with their hearts and feel with their guts: the defense wasn’t big enough.

Jim Nill’s last two trades have been for Andrew Cogliano (5’10”) and Jamie Oleksiak (6’7”) who are, respectively, now the smallest and largest players on the Stars’ roster. This is, I think, the ultimate example of what Nill has been trying to build for six years now: speed and size. The Stars, with Oleksiak back in the fold, are now as big as they have ever been. The Stars’ five-highest ice-time defensemen in those halcyon days of 2015-16? The behemoths of John Klingberg, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Kris Russell, and Johnny Oduya. And here we are, with Jim Nill making a low-risk trade for a guy because he’s available, because he has size, because the Stars don’t trust their own development system.

Jim Nill’s seat has gotten warmer not because he doesn’t know how to make his team better, but because the Stars as a whole have continually managed to convince themselves that they aren’t good enough as-is, that their plan isn’t sufficient with what they have, that the solution lies elsewhere. For three years, Jim Nill got elite talent into town and let his organization’s own talent blossom. Then they lost a playoff series against St. Louis, and they’ve spent the next (almost) three years moving mid-tier pieces around the board while hoping the good parts just stand pat until they can get everything in harmony again. The biggest swing of 2015-16 was hoping that Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen in front of a sometimes-tiny defense could be good enough to let a fast, skilled team outscore its opponents. The result? The Stars hit home runs for 82 games. The genius of that team wasn’t great trades, but great vision: the idea that a Demers/Klingberg/Goligoski/Oduya blueline could hang with the best of the NHL. It was a gamble after watching the hulking LA Kings win a couple of Cups, but it paid off: Dallas was dynamite that season, with its biggest defensemen (Nemeth, Jordie Benn, Jokipakka, and late in the season, Stephen Johns) being more role players than anything.

Since then, Jim Nill and crew have finally fixed the goaltending, but they’ve also been dead-set on making the defense bigger while the rest of the machine has been rusting out on the front lawn. Yell at the car all you want; if its not starting, it’s probably a maintenance issue, not a willpower problem.

If a culture of mediocrity exists in Dallas, it probably starts with the grass-is-always-greener level of insecurity Dallas has had for years now about what it’s built (and what it hasn’t). Jim Nill won’t get to take many more big swings, but maybe the biggest one Dallas can take this year is to trust that great vision is better than great size, that speed isn’t just an individual talent but the result of a dynamic system with suitable pieces.

The trade deadline is in four weeks.

***

Just for reference, here are the moves I see as being the most meaningful of the Nill era so far. If nothing else, at least this list doesn’t include Milan Lucic. Yet.

Major moves, 2013-2015:

June 10, 2013: Signed D Sergei Gonchar to a two-year contract.

June 21, 2013: Named Lindy Ruff coach.

July 4, 2013: Traded LW Loui Eriksson, RWs Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser and D Joe Morrow to Boston for Cs Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley and D Ryan Button.

July 5, 2013: Signed G Dan Ellis to a two-year contract.

March 4, 2014: Traded D Stephane Robidas to Anaheim for a conditional 2014 fourth-round draft pick. Recalled F Chris Mueller from Texas (AHL).

March 5, 2014: Traded G Dan Ellis to Boston for G Tim Thomas.

June 17, 2014: Bought out the contract of D Aaron Rome.

July 1, 2014: Acquired Jason Spezza from Ottawa for Alex Chiasson, Nick Paul, Alex Guptill and a 2015 second-round draft pick. Signed G Anders Lindback and RW Patrick Eaves to one-year contracts and F Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract.

July 7, 2014: Signed G Jussi Rynnas to a two-year contract.

November 9, 2014: Recalled D John Klingberg from Texas (AHL).

November 11, 2014: Acquired LW Travis Moen from Montreal for D Sergei Gonchar.

November 21, 2014: Signed C Jason Spezza to a four-year contract extension. Traded D Brenden Dillon to San Jose for D Jason Demers and a 2016 third-round draft pick.

February 11, 2015: Traded G Anders Lindback and a 2016 conditional third-round draft pick to Buffalo for G Jhonas Enroth.

March 1, 2015: Acquired D Mattias Backman, C Mattias Janmark and a 2015 second-round draft pick from Detroit for LW Erik Cole and a 2015 third-round draft pick.

April 17, 2015: Signed D John Klingberg to a seven-year contract extension.

June 15, 2015: Named Jeff Reese goaltending coach. Reassigned goaltending coach Mike Valley to director of goaltending development.

June 27, 2015: Acquired rights to pending UFA Antti Niemi from San Jose for a 2015 seventh-round draft pick. Signed to three-year extension on June 29.

July 10, 2015: Acquired Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt.

July 15, 2015: Signed D Johnny Oduya to a two-year contract.

August 28, 2015: Signed C Cody Eakin to a four-year contract extension.

January 8, 2016: Jim Nill signed to a five-year contract extension through the 2022-23 season.

Major moves, February 2016-2019:

February 29, 2016: Acquired D Kris Russell from Calgary for D Jyrki Jokipakka, F Brett Pollock and a conditional 2016 second-round draft pick.

June 25, 2016: Traded G Jack Campbell to Los Angeles for D Nick Ebert.

July 1, 2016: Signed D Dan Hamhuis and D Andrew Bodnarchuk to two-year contracts and D Dustin Stevenson to one-year contracts. Re-signed F Patrick Eaves to a one-year contract.

July 15, 2016: Jamie Benn’s eight-year extension

August 24, 2016: Signed RW Jiri Hudler to a one-year contract.

February 27, 2017: Acquired D Greg Pateryn and a 2017 fourth-round draft pick from Montreal for D Jordie Benn.

April 9, 2017: “Mutually parted ways” with Lindy Ruff

April 13, 2017: Named Ken Hitchcock coach.

May 9, 2017: Acquired the rights to G Ben Bishop from Los Angeles for a 2017 fourth-round draft pick. (Signed Bishop to six-year deal on May 12.)

June 26, 2017: Acquired D Marc Methot from Vegas for G Dylan Ferguson and a 2020 second-round draft pick. Signed D Esa Lindell to a two-year contract extension and F Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension.

June 27, 2017: Bought out final year of G Antti Niemi’s contract.

July 1, 2017: Signed F Tyler Pitlick and C Martin Hanzal to three-year contracts

July 3, 2017: Signed RW Alexander Radulov to a five-year contract.

April 13, 2018: Announced the retirement of coach Ken Hitchcock, who will remain with the team as a consultant.

May 4, 2018: Named Jim Montgomery coach.

July 1, 2018: Signed RW Blake Comeau to a three-year contract, RW Valeri Nichushkin and G Anton Khudobin to two-year contracts.

September 13, 2018: Tyler Seguin’s eight-year extension.

October 1, 2018: Acquired D Connor Carrick from Toronto for a 2019 conditional seventh-round draft pick.

November 10, 2018: Acquired D Taylor Fedun from Buffalo for a 2020 conditional seventh-round draft pick.

January 14, 2019: Traded F Devin Shore to Anaheim for F Andrew Cogliano.

January 28, 2019: Traded 4th-round pick to Pittsburgh for D Jamie Oleksiak, again