Jim Nill's Moves with the Dallas Stars, Part Three: The Best Trade Plans of 2014-15
We continue our perusal of Jim Nill's history in Dallas with a look at the preparation and improvisation for the beginning of the fateful 2014-15 season.
Welcome, gentle reader. We continue our look back at all of Jim Nill's moves with Dallas in Part 3, reviewing the disappointing start and subsequent moves by Jim Nill in the 2014-15 season. I didn't anticipate this, but we are going to do another one or two sections to wrap up 2015 as well as review our conclusions based on everything we've seen thus far. If all goes to plan, the Stars will make a completely unforeseen blockbuster trade just before I finish writing it.
So, stay tuned if you're reading this. If you're not reading this, then go jump in a swimming pool full of old Band-Aids. Or just go back and read Part 2 again. Either way.
2014 Draft - Julius Honka, Brett Pollock, Brent Moran, and 6 other defensemen
While the GM of any NHL team isn't usually thought to be quite as involved in the later picks, the Stars' 2014 draft may have been an exception. Dallas ended up using seven of their nine picks on defensemen, which perhaps wasn't that surprising given that Dallas had just spent a season giving ice time to blueliners such as Cameron Gaunce, Maxime Fortunus, Aaron Rome, and Kevin Connauton, not to mention the ghost of Sergei Gonchar. Jokipakka, Nemeth and Oleksiak were all on the cusp of NHL minutes, and the Stars' system was fairly bereft of any "next wave" behind them.
Honka and Pollock still project to be the gems of this class (as they should), but it's hard not to wonder what could have been when one looks at Dylan Larkin and even David Pastrnak, who were still on the board when Honka was chosen. Did Dallas draft for need above actual talent with their first-round pick? Jim Nill would likely say that the Stars simply liked Honka more than Larkin.
There's no question that Julius Honka was and is one of the most promising prospects in Dallas's system, but Jim Nill would make two moves in the upcoming season that severely reduced Dallas's need for a top-shelf right-handed defensemen. Still, just the fact that Honka is playing (and playing well) in the AHL at his age is just [insert one of those 18,000 Aaron Ekblad comments about playing great at a young age here].
July 1 - JASON SPEZZA
Free Agency Day finally got real for Dallas, though once again Jim Nill made his biggest move through trading.
We now know that Spezza refused to waive his no-trade clause for a trade to Nashville. While we can hardly blame anyone for exercising a contractual right not to wear that shade of yellow, the Predators never really recovered from Spezza's rejection. In fact, you could make the argument that Nashville was forced to trade Seth Jones as a direct result of this, having no real center depth to speak of over a year later.
Who knows what Nashville would have dealt for Spezza, but we do know what Dallas sent to Ottawa: Nick Paul, Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill and a second-round pick. Of those assets, Nick Paul looks to be the only one that could come back to bite Dallas, whereas Spezza instantly made Dallas one of the best teams up in the middle in the NHL.
It would not be the last time that Jim Nill showed a willingness to send away a young asset coming off a nice season (Chiasson) to acquire a better bet to help Dallas in the long run.
Note: The second best part of this trade was that Dallas got a Karlsson from Ottawa. Unfortunately for Dallas, they got the Koopa Kid Karlsson instead of the elite defenseman version..
July 1 - Ales Hemsky, 3-year, $12 million deal; Patrick Eaves, $650K
Patrick Eaves would battle health issues but contribute above expectations during his time on the ice. This is what Nill was betting on, and he won that bet after Eaves showed prowess on both the power play and the top line. It gave Dallas more depth and reliability (in performance if not in health), and at just about the lowest-risk deal one could ask for. No one was hoping that Eaves would be a first-line winger all season, but just being able to fill in atop the forwards was absolute gravy for Eaves.
Speaking of presumed first-line wingers, Ales Hemsky would go from an Edmonton market vociferously frustrated with his "soft" play and alleged unwillingness to play defense to a Dallas team where media and fans would grow vociferously frustrated with his "soft" play and high rate of turnovers. After showing a spark of chemistry with Spezza post-deadline the year before, Hemsky's acquisition seemed to prime the Stars for a top-six that was even more fearsome than it had been.
Hemsky's scoring numbers in Edmonton had been pretty solid, if not outstanding. His strong possession numbers on a squad of perennial stinkarooskies were downright promising. Initial talk from the Stars side was that Hemsky was the perfect right wing to play alongside Benn and Seguin, as Hemsky was seen as a "playmaking winger," which apparently is code for "this guy is really slick yet refuses to shoot, but we're trying not to editorialize too much here."
The three-year deal was seen by just about everyone outside of Edmonton as a great signing by Dallas. Hemsky looked primed to have an uptick after being freed from the shackles of Rexall Place, and Dallas's high-paced system seemed a perfect fit for his skating and offensive abilities. Dallas had previously given a three-year deal to Aaron Rome; managing to sign a quality free agent (with sneaky-good two-way play as well) for a reasonable cap hit and term was, at the time, another feather in Nill's cap.
I've resigned myself to the fact that Dallas doesn't love Hemsky anymore, but if you had been in Staples Center a few days ago (or anywhere with Hemsky and Janmark playing together lately) when Hemsky played Coyote against the Kings' Neutral Zone Border Patrol, you would also have found yourself sighing at this realization. Hemsky hasn't been what many hoped for in Dallas, but perhaps the biggest positive out of this signing is the fact that he's still a very movable asset. This is what a good deal looks like: the player can fall short of expectations, but the GM still has quality options.
July 1 - Anders Lindback
This is what a bad deal looks like. Or a bad decision, at least.
The Stars' goaltending was the problem that year, and Lindback was the furthest thing from a solution. Dallas would eventually find a taker for Lindback in a team actively trying to lose, but even then, Dallas lost a 3rd-round pick to make the sale happen. Lindback was a bounceback candidate along the lines of Devan Dubnyk, but Dallas did not acquire Devan Dubnyk.
There was talk that Mike Valley had been the one pushing for Lindback's acquisition. Mike Valley is no longer the Dallas Stars' goaltending coach. Incidentally Lindback has been one of the very few goalies with a worse 5v5 SV% than Lehtonen this year. These are bullet-point facts that tell the story perfectly well enough, thank you.
July 3 - Vernon Fiddler, 2-year, $2.5 million deal
After hitting free agency without a contract renewal, it seemed the Stars had moved on from Fiddler, but it turned out that Fiddler wouldn't be able to quit them that easily. After seeing the Spezza and Hemsky acquisitions, Fiddler's camp came back to Dallas with a lot less than your average UFA salary demands generally entail.
For a guy looking at potentially his last multi-year contract, Fiddler's willingness to sign for $1.25 million AAV spoke volumes about his desire to remain with the club that he had once asked to be traded from. The fourth-line center's production hasn't been anything more than just that (despite some time on the 2nd power play unit), but when it comes to Veteran Leadership and all that nebulous jazz, Fiddler at $1.25 million was both a known quantity and an affordable one on a term that allowed Dallas flexibility should some of the kids begin pushing up sooner than expected.
July 7 - Jussi Rynnas
There are bounceback candidates, and there are "let's tie a piano to this lamp, chuck them both out the window and see if a trampoline magically appears and moves the piano up to the roof for us" candidates. Jussi Rynnas was one such fellow, and while the theory of "you can never have too many options at goaltending" is not without merit, Dallas failed to properly define "option" that July of 2014.
Perhaps the biggest testament to what Jim Nill thought of this strategy for goaltending was what he did the next offseason. Lindback and Rynnas were a colossal failure in talent evaluation, and rather than try to find a another back up sort of goalie the following year, Nill paid a great deal to Niemi for a great deal of certainty. Mike Valley would be reassigned the next year, and all indications are now that Jim Nill is perfectly willing to trust his experts, but even more willing to use his own methods when the experts can't fix the problems.
July 12 - Julius Honka, 3-year $4.275 million ELC
Honka's entry-level deal was short (har har) of Val Nichushkin's, but it still reiterated Dallas's belief in the mobile young RHD's ample potential. Even with Klingberg looking ready for the NHL that same summer, Dallas greatly valued Julius Honka—so much so that they would end up sending him straight to the AHL, a remarkable feat for someone so young.
Jim Nill certainly gambled with his first-round pick, but he spent it on a player he saw as uniquely sapient. Even if Honka doesn't look like Aaron Ekblad, the Stars' GM bet on skill and smarts over size. This is what it looks like to have a GM who isn't beholden to conventional wisdom: it is scary, exciting, and confusing. This is also the Dallas Stars on the ice, lately.
July 22 - Antoine Roussel, 4-year, $8 million
With a few players' new contracts lingering into the later summer, Nill went ahead and locked up his feisty Frenchman first. Like Garbutt, Roussel was a Stars find whose hockey career had stalled a bit. In Dallas, Roussel had quickly become the fans' emotional torch-recipient from Steve Ott. Again, it's hard to find the statistics that justify a four-year deal for Roussel, but the fast skater with his share of points was the archetype of that rare player who is more valuable to his current organization than he would be to external ones. Jim Nill made the decision to keep Roussel around, and he wasn't afraid to commit four years in order to do it.
Roussel has been every bit the good solider, becoming famous for thing like staying after practice to chat with fans, giving away sticks, and embracing his personality while racking up the penalty minutes. Two million dollars isn't a big salary in hockey terms, but this deal gave Dallas the best years of Roussel. Once again, Nill paid an unremarkable price to keep a known quantity.
The other thing I'd add here is that I, to my great shame, didn't love the Roussel extension at the time. As we approach the halfway mark of it, however, I get it. Seguin and Benn are the face of this team, but you want a good landscape of personality when you're marketing 20 players a night, and Roussel carries more than his fair share of that load. Roussel is always going to be one whose contributions are greatest when his wits overtake his temper, but even if he isn't scoring a ton, this team has itself some room for a speedy player on a cheap contract who can get fans out of their seats.
He's also managed to score like forty-twelve game-winning goals this season, so that's probably a plus.
October 5 - Cody Eakin, 2-year, $3.8 million extension; Brenden Dillon, 1-year, $1.25 million extension
After having both Eakin and Dillon miss the majority of training camp, hearing word about Eakin's (and later that day, Dillon's) deal was a relief even before looking at the numbers. The Stars' offseason had been rosy up to that point with the Spezza acquisition, so to have two young players using their contractual (or lack thereof) leverage to negotiate their next RFA deal was a bit of a storm cloud on a sunny day. (In retrospect, the goalie strategy was like a massive fault line that we sort of wondered about, but then we just shrugged and said, "I guess we'll see!" before proceeding with our picnic.)
Eakin's deal was pretty unremarkable at the time, all things considered. Dallas had leverage, but they had traded Mike Ribeiro to acquire him, so they had expectations. Dallas folk talked about Guy Carbonneau, and Razor would even then praise Eakin's work ethic and potential for depth contributions.
Eakin had done well in the larger minutes asked of him up to that point, and the prospect of having a #3 center with speed, a decent scoring touch and a great shot was tantalizing. Dallas signed him to a bridge deal, but the multiple years gave them time to evaluate Eakin before rushing into a long-term commitment. At least, that's what I thought the two years meant. More on that later.
Brenden Dillon's negotiations during this time still perplex me to no end. Dillon and Eakin were both represented by the same agent, but the one-year deal for Dillon (coming as late as it did) showed a glaring disparity between his and the Stars' evaluations. Whether that had to do with Dillon's judgment of his potential (maybe), Dallas's feeling that Dillon owed them some extra years at a good rate after being signed as an undrafted free agent (maybe) or something different altogether (most likely) such as simple salary dollars, we may never know (until the 2041 Dillon biopic comes out on space television). Clearly the low-value deal wasn't either party's first choice going into the summer.
It's tough to project when this issue could recur (and of course, most of us didn't predict it happening with Dillon). I don't think Nichushkin is really in a place where he'll push for a crazy deal across his RFA seasons, given his limited production (and missed season). None of the Stars' other young defensemen with RFA years upcoming are really as irreplaceable as Dillon seemed to be leading up to 2014-15. The system today has size, skill, and depth that could play in the big leagues tomorrow; that might give Nill more leverage than anything.
In a short span of time, Dallas has gone from picking up David Schlemko on waivers to scratching two NHL defenders each game. That might tell you everything you need to know.
November 13 - Sergei Gonchar traded to Montreal for Travis Moen
And so the answer to Defense Logjam (Part 1) was announced. We found out later that Nill had actually been working on this deal with Montreal since the summer in order to make way for John Klingberg, but a training camp injury to Gonchar delayed the trade. Once Montreal got a look at Gonchar on Ice! again, the swap was consummated.
In a vacuum, this wasn't a great talent trade for Dallas; it was a useful one, though. Dallas traded Gonchar's final year at $5 million for Moen's remaining two years at $1.85 million apiece. In doing so, Nill freed up a permanent spot on defense for the Revelation of John Klingberg, which had begun just two days prior.
The first part of this deal is the value exchanged, and that's rather unremarkable from a Stars standpoint. Montreal wanted to clear Moen's cap hit for 2015-16, and the Stars wanted a an opening on defense right now. Klingberg proved the immense value of that cleared roster spot, while Moen proved the immense value of having twelve other forwards that could be trusted to play Dallas Stars hockey on a regular basis.
Gonchar initially looked better in Montreal than he ever had in Dallas (though his possession numbers were actually significantly worse in Montreal, owing in part to more defensive zone starts). Whether that was due to the easier competition of the East, Montreal's defensive system, or just having the NHL's best player in net behind him, Montreal appeared to have gotten better value from the trade. But things changed for Montreal as the season wore on. Gonchar tallied only a single goal with a peck or two of assists, and he finished the season (and the playoffs) as a healthy scratch.
With the defense mosh pit Dallas has dealt with in 2016, it's hard to not speculate on what Nill might do to clear blueline spots this time around. The ideal trade is surely numbers-based—clearing multiple kids out for one veteran—but other teams value roster spots, too. As much as fans might want to see the lower-talent defenders shipped out for Brent Burns or Dustin Byfuglien, it's hard to see any NHL GM parting with a quality asset for nothing more than an assortment of middling ones. But now I realize that I have just described the Patrick Sharp trade.
November 21 - Dillon traded for Jason Demers, 2 years of $1.19 million AAV retained salary, and 3rd-round pick; Jason Spezza 4-year, $7.5 million AAV extension.
In a trade that nobody predicted, Jim Nill responded to the Stars' miserable start (seven wins through 20 games) by trading a defensemen nobody thought he would give up for another defenseman that nobody thought was available. To sweeten the deal, San Jose also included a pick and a good dose of retained salary.
The trade caught a lot of people off-guard. My gut reaction was that the Stars were irrationally cutting bait on Dillon far too early. The undrafted free agent had become a fan favorite in Dallas, and that wasn't just because he was one of the only regular defenseman able to reach the candy jar on the top shelf of the locker room. Dillon's size and skating ability were a tantalizing combination in a defense corps that had effectively bifurcated the two. And yet, in a season where Dallas would continue to struggle at keeping the puck out of their net, Jim Nill traded away one of their strongest and cheapest defenders.
But as the trade was broken down, the focus moved from the player Dallas gave up to the one they acquired. Demers was a righty, which meant Dallas now had two "balanced" pairings compared to the zero with which they'd begun the season. Demers' skating was as good as advertised, and his physicality (demonstrated as soon as his debut) was surprisingly helpful. In fact, Demers and Jordie Benn would go on to form quite the solid defensive pairing throughout the year.
On a team that had long eschewed size in favor of skill on the back end, Nill doubled down and won. He traded one of their biggest blueliners for a smaller one and wound up with a better defender and an extra draft pick. The Stars became a much better defensive team (goaltending is another story) as the year went on, and Demers was no small part of that.
Of course, Demers is now in the last year of his contract while Dillon recently signed a long-term extension with San Jose. Whether Demers returns or not, Jim Nill's message with this trade was clear: he trusts his young depth on defense, but he's willing to move it for a relatively short-term improvement. I expect we'll know just how short-term a solution Nill is willing to try by March 1st.
As if that weren't enough for one day, the Stars also announced that they had extended another veteran player acquired in a trade: Jason Spezza. (Fridays in Dallas, right?) In some ways, this extension was almost perfunctory. The Spezza trade's merit had always been predicated upon Dallas's ability to extend the former Ottawa superstar, but the eventual details of said extension were a bit eyebrow-raising when announced. Thirty million over four years for a player in his early thirties is a bit of a gamble on both good fortune and physical fortitude.
This is still lauded as Jim Nill's biggest misstep in many circles, and you can see where that opinion is coming from. Players tend to decline in the age-range covered by Spezza's extension, and the Stars wouldn't even be getting top-line minutes (well, usually not) from him to prop up his point totals. All it would take to torpedo this deal is one more back injury that doesn't go away. (And the Canadian Dollar's affect on the salary cap doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, either.)
Of course, we also know that Spezza's deal coincides with Seguin's remaining four years (thanks, Petey C.!). So you can frame the debate in a "would you say $13 million for Spezza and Seguin as your top two centers for four years is a good deal?" sort of way, if you want. There's no denying that Dallas had oodles of cap room, but to have a large chunk of it dedicated to an older player was perhaps the most quizzical-look-inducing contract Jim Nill had drafted to that point.
The other thing Nill was (and is) counting on with this deal was the ability of Spezza to stabilize the team as a whole. Veteran Leadership is a bit of a buzzword in hockey circles, but if there were a team that could use it circa summer 2014, it would be Dallas. In locking down Spezza, Nill paid a premium to keep someone who had seen it all.
Spezza has become one of the leaders on the team, and that has a certain value. How much you value that leadership likely has a big influence on how much of a value you think Spezza's contract is. Certainly, so far, it has been just fine.