When the 2021-22 season ended for the Dallas Stars in the Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames, in mid-May, there were signs that the team could be heading into a turbulent off-season.
Back in March, even before the regular season concluded, general manager Jim Nill signed veteran Joe Pavelski to a one-year contract extension. Pavelski was coming off one of the best years for him statistically and it was very prudent of Nill to align the expiry of his new deal to Roope Hintz’s contract.
There was much more to be done, though.
Apart from the expiry of Rick Bowness’ contract, John Klingberg, Denis Gurianov, Jason Robertson, and Jake Oettinger were in need of new deals too. It was rather unclear which way the Stars would eventually go with the young budding superstars. Nill started slowly and managed to sign winger Fredrik Olofsson and an intriguing young forward prospect Matej Blumel before rolling up his sleeves to negotiate with the current batch of restricted (but also unrestricted) free agents at his disposal.
Even before announcing a new head coach, Denis Gurianov signed a show-me 1 year deal, basically his qualifying offer that held the minimum annual average value it could – $2.9 million. It was a compromise between a team that doesn’t really feel confident about the consistency of Gurianov yet and the player, who wants to prove the team wrong. Nill also managed to trade the contract of Ben Bishop to the Buffalo Sabres for a small price (7th round pick in the 2023 draft) in order to not use the LTIR pool for Bishop this season, the last of his deal.
Then the big news came: Dallas Stars signed Pete DeBoer to a 4-year contract worth $17 million in total as their new head coach. The signing meant that the management group wasn’t really leaving anything to chance. They know they could have a potential contender brewing thanks to very good drafting in recent years and want to make sure they have got the right guy behind the bench when that happens. But maybe, even more important than the actual hiring of DeBoer, would be the next steps he is about to make along with Nill to make Stars a perennial contender for years to come.
There also were potential discussions of possibly keeping some of the expiring unrestricted free agents, namely Vladislav Namestnikov or Michael Raffl, but Nill opted to only retain backup goalie Scott Wedgewood instead. In my opinion, that was the best move he could do at that time, not knowing Anton Khudobin’s availability and also managing to sign a proven performer in Wedgewood to a really good value contract of just $1 million in AAV.
When free agency hit, all the talk around the Stars was aimed towards the possibility of John Klingberg re-signing with Dallas. It was not meant to be, as Klingberg was seeking a big cap hit on a long term and the Stars did not have the cap space necessary to get the deal done. I was not a fan of the move at that moment, to be honest, but we didn’t know that Nill had his eyes set on another right-handed defenseman who could replace John Klingberg for now and for the future, but we‘ll get to that later.
Instead of Klingberg, the Stars opted to strengthen their group of forwards and snagged Mason Marchment, coming off a career year with the Florida Panthers, from the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes seemingly in a last-minute effort. When the Stars announced the depth signing of right-handed defenseman Colin Miller, the writing had already been on the wall for Klingberg, but it was further proof he would indeed be heading elsewhere after being with the Stars organization for more than a decade. After the first day of free agency, there wasn’t any news when it came to remaining RFAs Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger.
During the draft, Jim Nill and director of scouting Joe McDonnell didn’t try to hide that they had an obvious need in the pipeline, drafting four defensemen with their first four picks in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. While some of them are very intriguing – especially Lian Bichsel and Christian Kyrou – they are at minimum two to three years from being ready to make an impact for the Dallas Stars.
There was still a hole to be filled with the departure of Klingberg and I’ll be the first to admit that my confidence in the Stars management group was wavering a bit as I desired some sort of proactivity from Jim Nill to address their issues in a more timely manner as the stocks of unsigned players seemingly only went up.
Fortunately, the first spark came on September 1st when they announced the bridge deal for a goalie of the future, Jake Oettinger: a three year deal worth $4 million in annual average value. This contract was a great sign that Nill is ready to be patient to strike a good value deal with the players he really needs and not to jump the gun rather quickly just to have the business done as many of the fans were clamoring him to do.
The effect of the Stars basically filling their hole in the prospect pipeline in 2022 draft freed their hands a little bit when it comes to spending draft picks in the near future. That allowed Nill to make, in my opinion, the biggest move of the offseason from player personnel perspective. He opened his wallet of magic beans and traded for Nils Lundkvist in exchange for a conditional first round pick in 2023 draft as well as a conditional fourth round pick in the 2025 draft. As a memory refresher, here are the full trade conditions:
Yes, the price seemed a bit steep at first glance, but make no mistake here. Not only did Nill address a need with that trade, he also got a young, mobile right-handed defenseman and (most of all) a cost-controlled asset for another two years for the duration of Lundkvist’s entry level contract. If Lundkvist as a player pans out, this has the potential to become one of the best trades Nill has done for the team.
And then we got to the last piece of the puzzle, Jason Robertson. This negotiation was analyzed from every possible angle and at some point it was almost a guarantee that the Dallas Stars will need to make the cap space just to get Robertson under the contract and be cap compliant.
Enter Nill’s patience.
Being a fan is a joy and a scare at the same time, and not only throughout the games. Contract negotiations with stars like Robertson often make some fans anxious or stressed that the deal may not come to fruition. Luckily, they are not in charge of the hockey operations, because I’m not sure they would’ve gotten Robertson to sign such a sweetheart bridge deal that he has – $7.75 million in AAV for the next four years - without patience and a little bit of resistance.
That Nill now didn’t need to entice another team to ship ship out a contract or use the LTIR and still be cap compliant is truly a negotiation process executed masterfully, if you ask me. Yes, the upcoming extensions for both Robertson and Oettinger may be rather hefty, but they’ll come at a time when many of the current big deals on Stars payroll will be expired and the cap is projected to increase significantly more than in recent years. Bottom line is, there will be space to sign both players to their big-number deals.
Also thanks to the Robertson deal, the Stars now enter the season without using any LTIR or any other form of trickery just to be cap compliant. The Stars also have the second-lowest amount of cap space available from the teams that are not using any LTIR to start the season according to CapFriendly. This was a roster prediction from October 6th right after Robertson signed, but it materialized exactly as outlined:
My prediction for @DallasStars opening night roster:— Juraj Kralik (JK) (@KralikJuraj) October 6, 2022
22 players (13F/7D/2G)
$141,667 under the cap
Khudobin's deal buried in minors
Wyatt Johnston makes the team
Thomas Harley starts the season in the AHL
Stankoven back to WHL, Bourque loaned to AHL pic.twitter.com/qSkhMaMCkM
Now, the next biggest thing will be to find a number that keeps both Hintz and the Dallas Stars satisfied and ready to roll for many seasons to come. There really isn’t a reason to worry about that just now as Roope Hintz has one year left on his current deal but is already also eligible for the extension. I‘d argue the time to strike a deal is now but the fact is, both sides have time and, as we learned in the last five or six weeks, Nill uses time and patience to his advantage.
That’s why I feel there is a good chance we will go back sometime in the future and call the 2022 offseason “the summer of Jim Nill”.
Right now, we might actually just like where the team‘s at.