Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill and His Salary Cap Fandango
To their credit, the Stars have shown a willingness to spend on players since Jim Nill took the helm. However, in a league where bad contracts are the norm, should such aggression worry Stars fans? What, exactly, are the Stars getting into, and will it hurt the team long-term?
To start, I'm just going to throw out a number: 14. Leave it there. We'll get back to what it means in just a little bit.
While it simmers, consider the busy offseason our beloved Dallas Stars have had thus far. There's been a big award (Jamie Benn's Art Ross), aggressive free agent signings (Johnny Oduya and Antii Niemi), and a stunning trade (Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt). General manager Jim Nill has been active with the immediate future of the Stars.
Back to that number.
The summer's business has so far added just a shade over $14 million to the Dallas Stars' salary cap. Yes, some money went the other way, and the team said farewell to several of last season's contributors. Still, it's an astonishing bit of business in a salary cap league.
Sharp immediately becomes the team's second-highest paid forward, Oduya its third highest paid defenseman, and Niemi its second-highest paid... he makes a lot. Heck, if we include the previous summer's marquee signings (Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky) the Stars have improved themselves to the tune of $25 million in just two offseasons.
Frankly, the Stars needed to get $25 million better. As a fan, it's been encouraging to see how their management team has gone out into the marketplace to find the players they hope will make those improvements a reality. Spezza, Hemsky, Oduya, Niemi, Sharp, and Patrick Eaves are significant. For those of us that suffered through the last days of Tom Hicks' crumbling stewardship, they're a sign we might not be as far away from the glory days as we thought. They are also a master class in asset maximization.
Think back to the second half of last season, once the playoffs really faded into the realm of hope. The cap became something of a character in and of itself, a mascot of sorts. In particular, fans fixated on Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff, and Rich Peverley. One trade, two expiring contracts, and a big old pile of hope for the future. It wasn't that the trio played poorly. Personally, I believe all three made the Stars better on the ice, but I also believed at the time they had the potential to make the Stars so much better off the ice.
Who could the Stars sign with all of that money?
But there was a flip side to all of the hope.
Who would the Stars sign with all that money?
Shawn Horcoff carried a $5.5 million cap hit into his final season as a Star. A contributor, sure, but a bottom six forward. Once upon a time I'm sure the Edmonton Oilers were locking up a cornerstone player for the long term. The Sabres undoubtedly thought the same about Tyler Myers ($5.5 million), and the New York Rangers (Brad Richards at $6.67 million for 7 years) thought they were adding a play-making Conn Smythe-caliber center. I don't like depressing lists (especially when there's a chance my favorite team could wind up on one), so let's just agree that I could go on much, much longer.
This is a league in which, during a single offseason, both Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad were dealt due primarily to cap concerns. Consider as well the fact that Rick Nash's name has wound up in trade speculation, as has Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
For the sake of comparison, fourteen years ago the Dallas Stars added center Pierre Turgeon to a roster that already included Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk at center. Whether the move worked or not is immaterial. Outside of the finances, there was no real consequence to moving on if things went sour. In the old days, you could simply bury your mistakes and make new ones.
That's a lot of doom and gloom talk, sure, but it's also the segue I need. Yes, the talent Jim Nill has added to his roster is impressive, and maps well against its widely perceived weaknesses. However, the most important part is what Nill has not added: term.
Jamie Benn's current contract runs through 2017. After that he's going to make a lot of money. Most likely, he's going to make all of the money. So then this is a worry piece, right? Wrong. That same summer sees contracts expiring for Hemsky, Sharp, and Oduya. That must make this a worry piece about Tyler Seguin's contract expiring two seasons after. Wrong again. In 2019 the Stars will wriggle out from underneath Niemi, Spezza, and Kari Lehtonen.
In fact, only one player on the current roster has a contract running past 2019, and I don't think anybody is worried about John Klingberg's $4.25 million cap hit.
Let that sink in for just a moment. Across two seasons the Stars have splurged in excess of $25 million on free agents without completely decimating their salary cap situation. They still have room to add, and they've done nothing to limit their options with critical young members of the current core.
Savy management put them in position to take advantage of Chicago's capped-out status without imperiling much more meaningful pieces. They got better in the short term without sacrificing anything in the long term. That's not cap manipulation, it's cap magic, and with any luck, Nill's next trick will be to pull a Stanley Cup out of a ten-gallon hat.