Jim Nill's Moves with the Dallas Stars, Part Two: The First Season
Part Two: Let's go through Jim Nill's first year as the Stars' GM in painstaking detail.
On Wednesday, we talked about the circumstances surrounding Jim Nill's hiring in Dallas. Today, we go through the 2013-14 season.
The NHL trade deadline is February 29th at noon Pacific. In anticipation of the flurry (dozens!) of moves we are likely to see, and particularly those that impact Dallas, we are going to review all the significant moves of Jim Nill since his arrival back in late April 2013.
As we stated already in Part One, this isn't meant to extrapolate groundbreaking trade strategy from the one-year deal given to Travis Morin or anything. This is simply an effort to use recent data from Nill's time in Dallas in order that we might be forearmed as trade speculation ramps up.
All right, let's get to it. As always, please skip over the boring parts in order to re-live the Seguin trade. No one will fault you for that.
Note: These moves are from a combination of Hockey-Reference, Spotrac's transactions page, and definitely not at all my own faulty memory. It's their fault if anything's wrong. Also the government's fault, too. Probably.
April 29, 2013 - Jim Nill Is Hired
June 7 - Sergei Gonchar's expiring contract is acquired for a 6th-round pick; a few days later, he is extended for 2 years, $10 million
Ah, the old "trade a late pick for an expiring veteran contract in hopes of extending him for a couple years" move. It's hard to believe it cost more to acquire Gonchar than the 7th-rounder they spent to get Antti Niemi, right?
One year after the Stars had toured the senior circuit with veterans like Radek Dvorak, Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr, Jim Nill's first move was to acquire a 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the two-year deal enabled Dallas to snag Gonchar from other interested teams that couldn't afford the risk of paying $5 million to a 40-year-old defenseman in 2014-15.
The hope for Gonchar was that he would stabilize a young defense corps and elevate the power play; the reality was that he proved to be the least effective of the veteran defensemen on the blueline. The Stars were probably hoping that Gonchar would have something like the year Trevor Daley did, scoring-wise. Instead, Gonchar finished with a 2-20-22 line and a relegation to the third pairing. In the playoffs, even after Stephane Robidas had been traded, Lindy Ruff only gave Gonchar 13 minutes of ice time a night. That was less than both Cameron Gaunce and Kevin Connauton had averaged during the season.
Perhaps the cruelest irony of the thing is that the biggest perceived risk to signing Gonchar was his health, and he ended up playing 76 games in the season. That's not to say the Stars had tons of depth behind Gonchar that would have been able to compensate for his being on IR, but it just figured that one of Gonchar's healthiest seasons would also wind up being one of his worst. Thus, after Patrik Nemeth and Jordie Benn had proven themselves entirely capable of playing NHL minutes, Jim Nill would take action in summer 2014 to unclog the defense, as we'll see.
One other tertiary benefit of Gonchar's signing came after draft day, too. If you watched the Playing for Pevs piece, then you heard about how Gonchar helped Val Nichushkin deal with the Peverley incident in the moment. Surely there were many other moments throughout the year where Gonchar's presence helped Val to acclimate to North America, but as Nichushkin was unlikely to be available for Dallas to pick until it totally happened, it's safe to say that this was a accidental benefit of Gonchar's presence rather than an intended one.
Incidentally, Jim Nill would recoup a 6th-round pick (albeit for 2014 instead of the 2013 selection traded for Gonchar) by trading Lane MacDermid to the Flames late in 2013. That transaction will not be discussed further except to point out that Nill found a way to trade an asset Dallas couldn't use for something they could. It would not be the last time that happened.
June 22 - Hired Lindy Ruff
I'm sure you don't have any strong feelings about this one, so let's just skip it.
Okay, fine. FINE. After Alain Vigneault told the Stars that he was headed for Broadway, baby, Jim Nill turned to the other veteran coach who'd seen himself a thing or two. At the time, Dallas was just thankful to once again have a coach who knew how many centers to put on the ice for late-game faceoffs.
Ruff's contract was somewhere in the neighborhood of four years, $8 million, which was quite a good coach's salary at the time. Meanwhile, John Tortorella high-fived Vigneault in the airport as they swapped places, and Vancouver is still recovering from the damage. (How you feel about Vigneault in New York is also an interesting question this year.)
Curt Fraser was retained from the previous administration, and James Patrick came along with Ruff. This turned Dallas's coaching staff (along with its front office) into an assemblage of seasoned professionals almost overnight. The message was clear: expectations were being raised, and Nill was going to put tools in place to help the team meet them.
Ruff's tenure is a series of posts itself, but one thing you can't escape is that the Stars seem primed for two playoff seasons in three of his years (and quite probably a third if the Stars had received a bit o' goaltending last year). All NHL coaches are prone to trust veterans over kids longer than fans would prefer, but Lindy Ruff's aggressive system and fearless risk-taking was a terrifying wonder for Stars fans to behold. Jim Nill brought in Ruff to steer the ship as it underwent some major modifications.
Ruff has made some mistakes (again, like every other NHL coach), but I suspect Jim Nill is quite satisfied with his current head coach at the moment. Of course, how this season ends is going to mean much more to Ruff's job security than how it has begun. Welcome to life in the NHL.
2013 Draft - Nichushkin, Dickinson, Elie, Desrosiers, Nick Paul, Cole Ully
Derek or Huw I am not, but this draft was one of the better ones the Stars had seen in some time. Nichushkin's falling to Dallas was a bit of luck, but it was refreshing to realize that Dallas had a GM who didn't subscribe to continental biases when it came to acquiring talent. (Indeed, after 2015's draft, one might even wonder if Nill might have a bias in the other direction.)
There's not a player in that list that hasn't been useful to the Stars in some season, and while Jim Nill and Joe McDonnell likely had a hand in every pick there, Nichushkin (and Dickinson, we hope) are sure to be the big catches. Jim Nill is not afraid to draft where the talent is (in his team's estimation), and that is at least refreshing in its straightforwardness. You may not agree with every pick Dallas has made (THIS IS A GREAT UNDERSTATEMENT FOR MANY OF YOU), but Jim Nill clearly isn't going to be panicking at the table come draft day.
July 1st (?) - Made an offer to Vincent Lecavalier
We've written about this before, but here's the takeaway: The Stars are rumored to have offered the recently bought-out Lecavalier a four-year deal for $19 million. It's nice to reflect upon how the Stars luckily avoided this boondoggle thanks to the fifth year offered by Philly, but good gracious, Dallas's deal would have (at best) been like signing Shawn Horcoff for an additional two years. Nill's objective during his first free agency period with Dallas was clearly to load up the middle, but this would have been a load of an entirely different sort. The man is human, and if Lecavalier had taken the deal, just imagine how different all those Jim Nill columns would be today.
I'm sure a few of you have immediately starting make comparisons to the Spezza extension, but the biggest difference is in Spezza's recent history and performance to date, which are about as night-and-day to our cousin Vinny's last few years as you can imagine. Dallas is not asking top-line minutes and top-line performance of Spezza (although they have gotten them at times anyway), but Jim Nill did get his veteran playmaking center to lock things down in the middle for a while. Thankfully, he got the right one the second time around.
The moral of the story here? Every GM loves a reclamation project, but not as much as much as Philly loves horrible contracts, and thank goodness.
July 3 - Jordie Benn signed for 3yrs, $700K AAV
Jordie Benn isn't having his best season, but if there's a more perfect third-pairing defensemen in his price range over the last couple of years, I'd love to see him.
I'm admittedly baffled as to why so many people seem dissatisfied with Jordie Benn. I've written before about how what should be a really nice story—the older brother of the young star being good enough to play alongside him—has somehow become a point of derision for a lot of fans. I won't rehash those thoughts here except to say that this might be the last season we get to watch Jamie and Jordie play together, and we would be remiss if we failed to enjoy it.
Also of note here was Jim Nill's willingness to sign a player who had shown flashes of skill to a longer-term deal at low cost. I am not saying that this contract foreshadowed the Klingberg deal, but I am also not not saying that.
July 4 - TYLER SEGUIN TYLER SEGUIN TYLER SEGUIN (and Rich Peverley)
Not altogether unlike the Nichushkin pick, the Seguin trade displayed Nill's willingness to eschew a perceived risk in order to acquire an elite player. This deal required Dallas to jettison one of their best contracts in Loui Eriksson as well as one of their best prospects in Reilly Smith (along with valuable bit prospects Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow). That's a bold move for a new GM to make, but Jim Nill's confidence in his team's evaluative abilities clearly trumped any trepidation about attitude issues here.
I won't reiterate how good this deal was, because you kind of know that. Instead, try to picture this deal from Nill's side. Here he is, still a brand new GM, and he has to decide whether to trade cornerstones of Dallas's forward group and prospect depth to acquire a young player from another organization with rumored attitude issues who had just had a fairly underwhelming playoff series. (Fun thought project: If you could transport Ryan Johansen as he is now back to summer 2013, would you have made the same trade of Eriksson, etc. for him?)
Well, Nill pulled the trigger to acquire Seguin, and the report is still reverberating in Dallas today. Undoubtedly influencing his decision was the enormous potential value of Seguin's contract, a prescient deal by Boston that belied their true organizational wisdom. Jim Nill uses the phrase "we live in a cap world" in almost every interview he gives. This deal showed just how much that factor has influenced his decisions from almost day one. Relatively low-cost deals over a longer term or higher-cost deals over short term are a GM's best friend these days, and Nill used both in his first few months on the job.
Rich Peverley was slated to be an underrated acquisition for Dallas as well, and it's sometimes overlooked just how shrewd Nill was to acquire him along with Seguin. You might not remember it, but Peverley had spent a fair bit of time up with Seguin and Benn that year and done quite well. Even though Cody Eakin had taken some 2C/3C ownership as the season progressed (and there were a lot of mixed feelings about that), Peverley was a very solid player for Dallas, and had his loss been under less scary circumstances, it would be one of the biggest what-ifs about last season (and the 2014 playoffs).
Instead, we can't help but be thrilled for Peverley's health and overall outlook. He is still a Dallas Star, even if we don't get the privilege of seeing him play anymore, and he's got a wonderful family. Some things are more important than hockey.
Along with that, Seguin has mentioned before how much he appreciated having Peverley around after moving to a brand-new team. It's not necessarily Gonchar/Nichushkin, but having someone in the room who had hoisted a cup with Seguin surely had a non-zero value to locker room chemistry. (Now if we could just assign a firm value to that chemistry...)
July 5 - Acquired Shawn Horcoff for Phillip Larsen & 7th rounder
I might have exaggerated with the Lecavalier comparison, because Shawn Horcoff was actually on a higher AAV ($5.5 million) than the Stars' rumored offer to Lecavalier would have been. This was a clear sign that Tom Gaglardi had given Jim Nill the "Go Stars, Go!" sign from day one when it came to spending to the cap (although it helped that Horcoff's actual salary was much less than his cap hit).
Here again we saw Nill's willingness to send a late pick away to get what he wanted. I'm not positive that the Stars actually assign a dollar value to their 6th and 7th-round picks, but Jim Nill clearly doesn't expect to pull too many gems out of those rounds (or else he expects to be able to acquire one on draft day if he sees a potential diamond in the rough). That's not to express any lack of confidence in Dallas's scouts as much as a willingness to exchange miniscule potential value for certain present value.
Shawn Horcoff was not a hugely valuable player in terms of production, but he did lead the team in playoff scoring during Nill's only Dallas postseason to date. Tough as it was at times to watch the slowing Horcoff in Dallas's system, the Stars had the cap space to burn at that time, and Nill just didn't seem to care about overpaying if Dallas had the cap space to do what they wanted to do. Horcoff was a perfectly fine fourth-line center during his time here, and his stay gave Dallas time to grow players like Radek Faksa. That seems to have been as important to Nill as anything.
July 6 - Nichushkin signed for 3 years, $6.375 million
Entry-level deals are fascinating. The team has a huge chunk of the leverage, but they don't want to risk alienating a good young player in the first NHL contract talks of his career. Dallas added a few bonus incentives to Nichushkin's contract, but if anyone wondered just how good Dallas (and Nichushkin) expected their first-round pick to be, they made no bones about it with this contract. Nichushkin's is still the highest entry-level deal Jim Nill has given out so far.
July 7 - Dan Ellis signed for 2 years, $1.8 million
Nill's first crack at solving the backup goalie situation seemed fine enough on its face. The idea appears to have been to get a veteran netminder to give the goalies in Dallas's system time to mature, and just like he did with Gonchar, Nill wasn't afraid of a second year in order to get the guy he wanted. Also as with Gonchar, Nill was able to jettison that second year when it became clear that the player wasn't a great fit for Dallas. This shows just how much confidence Jim Nill has in his ability to navigate the trade market in order to course-correct as needed.
Basically, Jim Nill is like Dean Lombardi, except he fixes his mistakes through trades instead of through shady subversion of the CBA. Also, Jim Nill doesn't give huge contracts to Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik. Also, Gary Bettman doesn't hate Jim Nill (that we know of).
Lost in Dan Ellis's ignominious departure is that he actually carried the water quite well when Lehtonen went down early in the season, making Nill's move to get him look rather good. In fact, Ellis was a quite-reasonable 5-5 in his first 10 decisions of the year. Unfortunately for Ellis, he would go on a nice little losing streak to end his Dallas Stars career. We'll get to that.
January 30 - Ryan Garbutt extended 3-years, $5.4 million
It's tough to know how to feel about this deal. This was before the Corey Perry how'syourfather that may have cost the Stars Game 5 in Anaheim. This was before the rapid-fire kneeing and slew-footing suspensions the following season. This was before the "pitbull" line drastically tailed off in both perceived and actual utility.
Still, $1.8 million is not an absurd AAV for a 3rd-line player, and that's what Garbutt looked to be at that point. He was an excellent penalty killer who also had wheels for days, and he could do a pretty decent Steve Ott impression when he toed the line correctly. (Just ask Ryan Getzlaf in that same playoff series.)
Ultimately, the Stars had to retain salary in the Sharp trade, and it is my belief that the Stars chose to assign the retained salary ($900K per year) to Garbutt's contract rather than Daley's out of sentiment and respect. Relative to their contracts, Garbutt probably had more value to Chicago; relative to which player Dallas appreciated more at that point, Daley was worth fifty Garbutts. (Just ask Corey Perry who he remembers more.)
As far as Jim Nill goes, this deal showed his willingness to reward lower-tier players while also giving Dallas some certainty for the future. As we saw once again, Nill had no trouble making changes when that player didn't live up to expectations.
March 4 - Stephane Robidas traded to ANA for 4th-round pick
With Robidas potentially sidelined for the rest of the season, and with Dallas ready to hand the reins over to some of the younger blueliners in 2014, flipping Stephane Robidas's expiring contract for a pick was a fairly easy deal to make. It might also be able to inform us about this season quite a bit.
Now, there was always the possibility that Robidas would be back before the playoffs, but Dallas had no certainty about what sort of shape he would be in. And with Dillon, Daley, Goligoski and Jordie Benn all looking solid enough to round out the top four, Jim Nill chose to trade the uncertainty of Robidas' healed body for the uncertainty of a 4th-round draft pick.
Dallas will likely be much more assured of playoff position this February/March than they were two years ago, but they do have a few expiring contracts on defense once again in Demers, Goligoski and Jordie Benn. The difference this time around (we won't talk about potential injuries) is that Dallas will know precisely what sort of production they would get from those defensemen. That means that a similar sort of trade as the Robidas deal runs the very real risk of weakening the team for the playoffs for the sake of a future asset.
At the very least, Dallas would be losing steady and well-known value from any of the three players mentioned above in order to replace them with either Oleksiak/Nemeth or a not-yet-acquired asset. That's the sort of trade very few GMs would ever dare to make, if for no other reason than because doing so adds a modicum of the unknown right before crunch time. GMs don't like not knowing things. You've heard Mike Heika preach repeatedly that the Stars are "gathering information" about the players they have prior to the trade deadline, and I suspect that phrase is coming almost directly from management itself.
With the Robidas deal, Dallas clearly felt they had gathered enough information from their new top four to move on. I don't see a similar move happening this season without an unquestionably stellar player coming back to Dallas in the same breath—and in a different deal.
March 5 - Dan Ellis traded for Tim Thomas
This move was less about the playoffs than it was about getting someone who could be expected to spell Kari Lehtonen with greater effectiveness than Ellis had done. In his final six decisions, Ellis had piled up six losses and a 4.80 GAA. That'll getcha booted from just about anywhere these days.
As fun as it was to watch Thomas gallivant about the defensive zone with his unorthodox style of play, this move was just as much intended to free Dallas's goalie position for 2014-15, and he did so. Thomas was (just barely) good enough to help Dallas stay afloat while the rest of their competition for the 8th seed collapsed around them, and Kari Lehtonen took over for the playoffs. Kari did great for most of the playoffs, too.
Thomas won his first two games (you may remember the Minnesota and St. Louis ones in particular), lost in a shootout to Calgary, then proceeded to lose the rest of his five decisions in regulation (albeit with a sub-3.00 GAA along the way). The Stars made it into the playoffs, and they got rid of Ellis's second year. Once again, Jim Nill found a trading partner to help him escape a potential pitfall unscathed.
May 26-31 - Desrosiers, Dickinson and Lindell all extended 3-year, $2.775 million deals
I mention these deals primarily to note their equal values. All three players were put on $925K entry-level deals, and it's noteworthy that all three are still on track (as much as you can call any young goalie who is brand-new to the AHL "on track") to be significant parts of Dallas's core in the next two years.
Dickinson and Lindell were still coming along at this point, and Jim Nill compensated them with professional contracts on the higher side of things. That $925K number is higher than the follow players' current AAV: Jokipakka, Nemeth, Jordie Benn, Oleksiak, Sceviour, and Janmark. I don't know what that means, except that the Stars expect a lot out of these three guys. I expect we'll see Esa Lindell in particular justify that ELC (if he hasn't already done so in Texas) as soon as this fall.
June 16 - Aaron Rome bought out (Compliance)
While Joe Nieuwendyk was able to flip his first "Hey, this guy is tall" defenseman (AKA Adam Pardy) to Buffalo (along with Ott) for Derek Roy, Aaron Rome's contract was less mobile. Signed to a rather "Wait, what?" 3-year deal by Nieuwendyk before the 2012 lockout, Rome's $1.5 million AAV was about as movable as Jaromir Jagr along the boards.
Fortunately for Nill, he didn't have to take hat in hand when asking Tom Gaglardi to pay Rome to not play hockey for Dallas. After all, Rome wasn't his signing, and the contract wasn't Nill's fault. Dallas had defense to spare, especially with Nemeth's surprising emergence late in the season, and once Gaglardi gave the okay, this surely was not a difficult decision.
With the last compliance buyout window looming, some suspected that the Stars would also opt to disappear Sergei Gonchar. Today, it's hard not to wish they had. Yes, we now know that Jim Nill was already in talks that summer with Montreal to trade Gonchar, but Travis Moen's ability to be healthy-scratched ad infinitum is nothing that anyone wants to see, least of all Moen.
Of course, a Gonchar buyout would have been one heck of a $5 million "whoopsie" to declare just a year into Nill's tenure. We'll get into the eventual trade in Part 3, but all things being equal, it would have been nice to have a straight mulligan on the Gonchar deal instead of just decreasing and amortizing that cap hit over two years of Travis Moen.
Note: The above section was a great example of my faulty memory. Gonchar was not eligible for a compliance buyout, as his contract was signed after the new CBA. As usual, just ignore me.
Please feel free to correct any real or perceived revisionist history in the comments. I will definitely read* the comments.
*Oh, come on, you know exactly what that asterisk means.