NHL Free Agency: Jim Nill's Unexpectedly Quiet July

In a surprisingly prudent summer for (most) GMs, Jim Nill appears to be biding his time. Is he just waiting for the right move before pouncing?

Jim Nill was hired by Tom Gaglardi in late April 2013. The Stars were fresh off a lockout-shortened season that ended in a nearly magical but ultimately fruitless surge toward the 8th playoff spot. In the span of only five weeks, Joe Nieuwendyk traded Brenden Morrow, Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy for pieces that he would never get to enjoy managing, and the Dallas Stars were about as close to a true rebuild as they had ever been during their sojourn through the playoff-less wilderness.

So it was that Jim Nill walked into town and decided that it was time to stuff some Miracle-Gro into the finally fertile soil of the Stars organization. Lindy Ruff was hired on June 21st after Alain Vigneault chose the Rangers, and then July arrived. You know all about that first July, but we're still stuck in the 2015 version of July, and the difference is pretty glaring. With the Bruins having chosen to ship this year's edition of Boston Problem Child to Calgary while a prior edition was shipped to Pittsburgh, and with Chicago playing RFA footsies with Columbus, everyone else seems to be having all the fun.

Some context: It's unusual for Stars fans to see zero free agents signed by their team a full week into free agency. For instance, in 2011 the Stars signed six players on July 1st. July 2012 saw Ray Whitney and one Jaromir Jagr joining the team. And more recently? Well, let's take a quick trip through the last couple of years and look at just how anomalous this July has been for Jim Nill.


Earlier in June, the Stars had swapped a conditional late-round pick to Ottawa for Sergei Gonchar's negotiating rights, which turned into a two-year deal for the Russian power-play specialist. The signing was seen as something of an overpay by a team with plenty of cap space, with the second year being especially crucial to landing the veteran defenseman.

After Lindy Ruff was brought on board, the Stars didn't mess around. Center depth had been a serious problem after Brad Richards's departure two years ago, and while the Ribeiro trade promised a potential pivot in Cody Eakin, the Put Jamie Benn at Center Because He's the Best Player Experiment was never going to solve the issue. So Jim Nill went ahead and got three centers* right off the bat through trades for Horcoff, Peverley and one Tyler Seguin.

*It's worth noting that all three of those players would play wing for extended periods of time after coming aboard though, and Peverley's unfortunate health problems would lead to another center acquisition the following year.

Elsewhere on the ice, Jim Nill decided to bring back former Stars up-and-coming netminder Dan Ellis on a two-year deal to spell Lehtonen. Ellis would go 5-6-1 in 14 games while stopping an average of 90% of the shots he faced--a line so unacceptable that a twilight-years Tim Thomas would eventually look like a good alternative to retaining the second year of Ellis's contract.

Another acquisition that July was Chris Mueller. Mueller would go on to put up 57 points in 60 games with the Stars on their way to a Cup victory, which was just great for Texas. Depth players are fine, and even though Mueller didn't produce during his time with the big club (unless you count 2 PIMs in the playoffs), he was just fine for what he was. This was an entire paragraph about Chris Mueller.

Okay, moving on to...


Yes, that center depth. Again, Jim Nill was a man on a mission, and he wasted no time in bolstering one of the Stars' greatest needs at the number two center slot. Jason Spezza nixed Nashville in favor of Dallas, and suddenly the rest of the league (or at least the league's media) was projecting the Stars to score all of the goals every night always forever. If not for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Stars just would have done so.

The also-signed Ales Hemsky was cited as another strong reason for Dallas's potential goal-a-palooza, but a combination of a hip issue, a new system and [pick your favorite reason] led to Hemsky's putting up one of his least productive years. Still, we're talking about July, and Jim Nill clearly wanted to build a top six that could hang with anyone in the league. Spezza and Hemsky seemed primed to accomplish that, but just in case the forward group still needed help, Jim Nill went ahead and picked up Patrick Eaves on a bargain-basement deal, betting that the speedy winger could be a type of spackle for the Stars' forward group. Even with a couple of freak injuries, Eaves still managed to do just fine.

All the hubub ended up convincing Vernon Fiddler to return on a very manageable two-year deal as well. After only a few years since the Steve Begin era, it looked like Dallas finally had a forward group without too many holes. It looked like that.

In goal, Jim Nill decided that neither a prototypical backup like Ellis or an aging veteran would do the job. Much like with Eaves, Nill decided to bet on a bounceback year, but he sought to double his upside by acquiring both Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas. At the time, there were murmurs that Lindback's poor playoff showing for the Lightning showed his inability to be a true NHL netminder, despite his former efforts in Nashville and his immense size. Rynnas had never managed much of anything in Toronto, but again, there was upside, in July.

On defense? Well, we would later find out that Nill had been trying to trade Gonchar to Montreal for a while, but after breaking his ankle blocking a shot in a preseason game, Gonchar's arrival with the Canadiens would end up being delayed until November,* itself necessitating the Stars' accepting the final ~1.7 years of Travis Moen's questionable contract.

*Also of note, the Gonchar/Moen trade was eerily similar to the Ellis/Thomas trade of the prior season: one team gained an older player, the other team took on a younger player who seemed barely replacement-level, but with an extra year still remaining on his contract.

Defense would end up being a big problem for the Stars in the first portion of the season, and Dillon's departure ten days after Gonchar's seemed to indicate that while Jim Nill either wasn't able or willing to entice any of the free-agent defensemen in July, he was never planning to just ride out the season with the same players he started with unless everything broke just right. Instead, everything just broke for a little while, and Kari Lehtonen had an uncharacteristically awful season.


So now we're caught up, and this summer has been rather anticlimactic. Yes, there was Antti Niemi. Patrick Eaves re-upped as well. But the glaring thing about the last three summers is that Jim Nill has never signed a UFA defensemen after July 1st. Again, it's certain that Dallas was and is kicking tires and making offers, but the results to date indicate that Nill has not been dropping cartoonishly large bags of cash with dollar signs on UFA defensemen's doorsteps. The largest (and only) defenseman signing was Gonchar on a two-year deal, and that came after Nill worked to get exclusive negotiation rights beforehand. That speaks perhaps as much about Nill's confidence in the kids in the near future as it does about his lack of confidence in the free agent class, but again, it's tough to speculate without knowing what offers were made to whom. Here's what I see, though:

Two years ago in July, the Stars' center-depth was atrocious, and Nill made sure to fix that in a big way while also signing a fairly milquetoast backup goalie. He added a veteran defenseman to help bring the kids along while trusting Daley, Robidas and Goligoski to soak up a lot of the tough minutes.

Last summer, Nill needed to replace Peverley while also slotting Cody Eakin back down to the third line, and he signed Spezza and Hemsky to do that. He also tried grabbing two backup goalies for the price (and roster spot) of one. He tried to remove Gonchar as Klingberg, Jokipakka and Nemeth all looked ready to go; it just took longer than planned. When things went south in a hurry, he tried to balance out the pairs by bringing in Demers, who (I'm totally guessing here) he knew was available. Perhaps San Jose inquired during Dillon's protracted contract negotiations, but it really doesn't matter. The point is, Nill didn't hesitate to make a pretty big move on defense when the need became apparent. (Whether it was the right move is still a good debate.)

Coming into this July, the Stars quickly added another proven veteran goalie. This lined up with exit interviews from April and many comments during the season when Ruff and others said that Kari had to be better. Oh, and one other thing they've said? That it's probably going to be preferable to acquire the top D-man they want through trade rather than free agency. Reinforcing the blueline seems to be a given at this point, not an option, and their available cap space (somewhere around 8-9 million before signing Oleksiak) is practically earmarked for just such a move.

Will Nill stand pat and take this defense into the season? Given how aggressively he's tried to fix issues in the past, I highly, highly doubt it. And as we saw last year, even if they don't get the trade they want in the summer, there are plenty of ways to swap pieces if they scuffle out of the gate.

You can bet the Stars are all out of patience when it comes to slow starts. The Antti Niemi signing was not about patience. It was about mitigating any liabilities while loading up to withstand the dogfight of the Central Division, eventually making some serious noise in the playoffs. Even if Jim Nill doesn't fire more bullets this month, you can be sure that the Stars still have their sights set on what they want--even if it takes a little longer than we would prefer for them to get it.