When Jim Nill took over as General Manager of the Dallas Stars in April of 2013, one of his first moves was to bring in Sergei Gonchar. The 39 year old was coming off of a decent, albeit shortened, season with the Ottawa Senators where he put up top ten offensive numbers. At two years for $10 million, some considered it an overpay, but Dallas was leaky on the backend, and Gonchar was a known leader who could mentor a young, but up and coming group.
Brenden Dillon was already seeing second pair time with Dallas, and Jamie Oleksiak, Jyrki Jokipakka and Patrick Nemeth were key parts of a Texas Stars team that won the Calder Cup in 2014. John Klingberg was on the horizon.
That’s five offensive oriented defenders, all of whom would play at least 150 NHL games, plus Alex Goligoski, who at that point was only 27. Stephan Robidas and Trevor Daley supplied veteran support, but it was a group that, on balance was young and could push play. With the exception of Klingberg, they were also all left shots.
The young core of defenders were mostly home grown. While Goligoski had been part of a controversial trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Oleksiak, Nemeth, Jokipakka and Klingberg were all Stars draft picks in 2010 and 2011. Dillon was signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2011 straight out of the WHL. Even seventh defender Philip Larsen - soon to be traded for an aging Shawn Horcoff, was a Stars 2008 fifth round pick.
Nill inherited one more defender who would be part of that young core - Esa Lindell, a 2012 third round pick. Finally, he picked up Stephen Johns from the Chicago Blackhawks as part of a trade for Patrick Sharp, while losing Trevor Daley. At the time, Johns was seen as a big, defense first, right shooting defender and to many at the time, was an afterthought in the trade for both Dallas and Chicago.
Early on, Nill made a few other moves, including hiring Lindy Ruff to a four year deal to coach the team and picking up a young Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins. All signs pointed to Nill building a young, offensive oriented team with a group of defenders who could push play in support of a dynamic offense.
After the last few years of defensive slog, its a bit difficult to remember those free wheeling Lindy Ruff days. Its worth taking a look to remind ourselves about what a drastic change the team went through between the best Ruff year and Ken Hitchcock’s return year two years later.
2016-2017 was an odd year, with the team decimated by injuries. In spite of that, in Ruff’s last year, they maintained a +6% offensive expected goals for while increasing to a +8% expected goals against. The offense didn’t outscore the defensive deficiencies, and Ruff wasn’t brought back. Enter Hitchcock.
Both teams were good in their own ways, but the team’s identity certainly changed from pushing play into the offensive zone to locking things down on the defensive end.
How the Stars handled young defenders also changed. Early in Nill’s tenure, Dallas was known for keeping eight defenders on the roster, primarily since the younger players had burned through their waiver exemptions, and Nill was reluctant to lose assets when sending them to the AHL.
It could be argued that this stunted the development of the entire group, although several went on to have solid NHL careers - just not with the Stars.
Over the years, the nature of Dallas defenders went through a transformation. Gone were the budding rookies - replaced by cost effective (mostly), dependable veterans. Some were rentals, but others put in their two or so unmemorable years.
Fans know the names - after Gonchar, you saw Kris Russell, Dan Hamhuis, Mark Methot, Johnny Oduya, Andrej Sekera, Gregg Pateryn, Roman Polak, Mark Pysyk, Jani Hakanpaa and Ryan Suter. A handful were handsomely paid and most were on the wrong side of 30. Many brought some kind of veteran savvy, physicality or dependability along with their replacement level skills.
A few young defenders did find their way into the mix. John Klingberg established his place in the lineup during the Ruff years, and Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns did so during the defensive transition. Both played a physical style, but with limited offensive upside. As a right side defender, losing Johns created a hole in the top four core that has yet to be filled.
First round draft picks have at least garnished a look. Obviously Miro Heiskanen jumped right into the lineup, and presumably Thomas Harley will be given an opportunity this coming season. On the other hand, it could be argued that being a first round pick didn’t work in the favor of either Jamie Oleksiak or Julius Honka in their attempts to find a spot in the lineup.
Nill has shown a willingness to let defenders walk (or retire) at the end of their contracts - or in some cases, to sign them to one year deals. The only key contributing defender who left the team during Nill’s tenure was Alex Goligoski.
At the time, there were some concerns about a long term contract and an overpay (sound familiar - John Klingberg). Each situation is unique, but Goligoski was at the same point in his career as Klingberg is now. He spent a productive five years in Arizona before signing last year with the Minnesota Wild. Goligoski may not have fit the defensive mold reflecting where the Stars were headed as a team, but Nill was never able to find anyone other than a short term fix to fill the hole that he left.
Finally, since the defensive transition, Dallas under Nill has never developed a prospect pipeline for defenders that the organization considers capable of playing NHL minutes. Joel Hanley spent a solid year with the Texas Stars, but in a veteran role, before ultimately making the team as the seventh defender.
Gavin Bayreuther and Dillon Heatherington did their time in Cedar Park, but ultimately gained UFA status and moved on to borderline NHL careers with other teams. The current crop of prospects are reaching that same stage: Joe Cecconi and Ryan Shea have signed two way deals. Ben Gleason is an arbitration eligible RFA and Dawson Barteaux is under contract, but has split time between Texas and the Idaho Steelheads.
The team continues to give looks to undrafted prospects out of college - Jerad Rosburg and Michael Karow are recent examples, but outside of first round picks, there just isn’t a history of the team developing defenders. The last Stars draft pick to play any substantial minutes for the team at the NHL level is Esa Lindell, and he was drafted 10 years ago.
On a positive note, last season the Texas Stars did add Max Fortunus as a bench coach, concentrating on defenders. But given the teams history under Jim Nill, if you’re not a first round selection and you are either drafted by or are considering signing with the Dallas Stars, you may want to look at alternative ways to fulfill your NHL dreams.