Come what may, the Dallas Stars have committed to their (next) new direction when they hired Pete DeBoer as head coach officially on Tuesday.
DeBoer signed a four year deal, and many wondered if the fact that Jim Nill was entering the last year of his five-year contract extension signed back in 2016 that ends after the 2022-23 season had influence on who he hired.
The answer, based on the introductory press conference on Wednesday, is that it really didn’t. Nill said that he is currently working with owner Tom Gaglardi on a plan for the future of the franchise when it’s time for him to hang it up and spend time with his family.
“My job is to worry about today and to worry about the franchise in the future,” Nill said. “So, I’m working on a succession plan for Tom that is three, four, five, six years down the road. That’s what I’m working on. I’m part of that. I will be the GM here for a few more years, but that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Reading between those lines, it seems likely that Nill will sign a contract extension for three seasons so that his contract runs out at the same time as DeBoer. It would make sense from an ownership perspective, too. If DeBoer doesn’t work out, and you want to make a change, it’s easier to make a wholesale change with contracts that expire at the same time.
Not to mention, Nill, who is currently 64 years old, isn’t getting any younger. He’s pragmatic. He knows there will come a day when it’s time to step away from hockey to spend more time with the grandkids that are starting to get older. Nill is very passionate about this team, so he’s going to put a plan in place so that when that time comes, there’s stability built into the management side of the equation.
What that succession plan will look like is yet to be determined, but it will be in place. It’s getting the right personnel in place and with the right experience so that they’re ready to step into a higher role and have success. That is what good bosses do, and the Stars are a business, not just a sports team.
But before we write Nill off and usher him into the setting sun, there is work to be done. And DeBoer listed out three key things that will factor into improving the Stars next season: style, individual contributions, and roster construction.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that we want to unlock some of the offensive game to this group,” DeBoer said. “What can we do better, style-of-play wise, in order to be better? The second thing is, individually, what individual players can we get more out of and what’s the plan to do that? And that goes hand-in-hand sometimes with style of play.”
So what is that style going to look like?
“Our expectations starting with coming out of our own zone through the neutral zone,” DeBoer said. “Obviously everybody in the NHL wants to play with the puck and play in the offensive zone more than the other team. That’s automatically going to give you a better opportunity to score. We want to come up with a plan in those areas. For me, the scoring will come, the depth scoring will come. It’s a natural byproduct of having the puck more and playing in the other team’s end more.”
Record scratch - we’ve heard that line before, and the results did not follow. Now, I’m in the “wait and see” camp and am more than willing to give someone the chance to see if they can actually follow through with that. But that line can be very triggering for Stars fans, and the leash will be much shorter in the patience department to see measurable results after several years of “it’ll take care of itself” under Rick Bowness.
I did like that he talked about individual improvements. One of the ways you can change a culture of mediocrity is by assuring that there is accountability from the top down. By all accounts, the Stars have a cohesive, welcoming locker room and a strong leadership group. So the foundation for establishing a culture of individual accountability is there already.
The list of who could be improved individually to help out the team is not without many, many candidates. Denis Gurianov immediately jumps to mind, as does Radek Faksa. When asked about Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who are older and on hefty contracts and coming off a few down years offensively, DeBoer said that “age is just a number.” He then went on to list several veteran players that have played for DeBoer in the past that have had career years, such as Joe Thornton.
“Every coach is different,” Jamie Benn said. “I thought we were great under Lindy [Ruff] with the way we played offensively, I think we were great under [Jim Montgomery and Rick Bowness] with how we played defensively. [Ken Hitchcock] was kind of a happy medium, and I think we’re going to find a better balance with Pete and the way he likes his teams to play.”
As for the roster portion of the program, that’s where things will get a lot trickier for Dallas.
The Stars currently have $62.9 million committed to the salary cap next season with 11 forwards and six defensemen signed as well as a buried-in-the-AHL cap hit for goaltender Anton Khudobin. Hefty pay raises are due for RFAs Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger and a new deal is needed for RFA Marian Studenic.
The team will have about $19.6 million to get those contracts done, as well as potentially signing a backup goaltender (with uncertainty around Khudobin after his season-ending hip and labral repair surgery and a pretty thin NHL-caliber depth in the system currently behind him) and making a decision on John Klingberg’s future with the team. Nill said he’s still been in touch with the top-pairing defenseman’s agents, and it seems both sides are going to continue to talk as free agency approaches.
After moving out Ben Bishop’s contract to the Buffalo Sabres earlier this month, the Stars may not be done on the trade front in their quest to open up some flexibility to tweak the roster.
“A lot of these things hinge, unfortunately you guys don’t want to hear it, but the cap comes into play,” Nill said. “So we’re juggling some things. Can you move some money to create money? What’s out in the market? I think there’s going to be a lot of movement out in the market this year. What’s available? I’d say probably 26 teams, we’re probably all in the same position.”
“Do we make moves that creates some extra cap room so I can do other things and sign some free agents? That’s what I’m probably trying to do.”