In two off-seasons, Jim Nill has taken the Dallas Stars from some of the darkest depths the franchise had ever seen to a blazing ascension back to glory. Because of his work, the Stars are quickly climbing their way back to becoming the powerhouse they were in the late 1990’s.
Strength down the middle of the lineup is key to being a contender in the NHL, especially in the Western Conference. Over two summers, Nill has added two top centers, and a handful of strong support players to the lineup. Adding two high-end centers usually comes at a huge cost or takes several seasons to unfold, but the Stars general manager has done so in little time while maintaining a strong lineup.
Nill’s First Summer
In his first off-season, Nill hired coach Lindy Ruff, moved Jamie Benn to his more comfortable position at left wing and traded for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff. Seguin established himself as the team’s top center and half of one of most dangerous duos on the league. Peverley was strong at center, but his versatility helped the Stars as he bounced throughout the lineup as needed. Horcoff was not permanently fixed at center, but he fit into the bottom six and was extraordinary in the playoffs.
In the 2013 draft, Nill stockpiled the cupboard with more building blocks for the future. Tenth overall pick Valeri Nichushkin was of one of the biggest steals of the draft. Despite an up-and-down rookie season, he should be part of one of the most dangerous lines for years to come alongside Benn and Seguin. Forward Jason Dickinson and goaltender Philippe Desrosiers have already shown promise early on in their careers as the other six players selected continue to develop.
This Summer’s Moves
This summer’s draft may not have resulted in immediate lineup help, but the picks addressed team needs and should pan out in a few years. First-round pick Julius Honka should fill the void of a right-handed, puck-moving defenseman missing from the current lineup. Brett Pollock’s offensive skills and ability to play center or wing should come in handy. Nill stockpiled the prospect cupboard with six more defensemen over the remaining picks in the 2014 draft.
The Stars took hold of the headlines when Nill pulled the trigger on a trade to bring Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza to Dallas shortly before free agency opened up. Spezza should fill the void at center on the second line. With a healthy campaign, Spezza should take pressure and opponents’ attention off the top line, add to the locker room’s leadership with his experience and improve the much-maligned power play. The fact that Nill was able to bring in one of the most coveted centers available this off-season without gutting the current lineup is remarkable.
As if a blockbuster trade wasn’t enough, the Stars added forwards Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves as well as goaltender Anders Lindback. Hemsky had great chemistry with Spezza for a short time in Ottawa last season. The skill and speed of the two former Senators should make Dallas’ second line nearly as intimidating as the top line, which should be a terrifying tag team if last season was any indication. Eaves provides more versatility, grit and depth to the bottom six of the lineup. Nill is familiar with Eaves’ play after having seen him play in Detroit for over four seasons. Lindback will serve as Kari Lehtonen’s more-than-capable back-up next season while providing time for prospect Jack Campbell to develop in the AHL.
Next on the agenda is to re-sign the team’s restricted free agents. Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel and Brenden Dillon headline the group and should be considered part of the core moving forward. Nill’s most recent move was re-signing veteran Vernon Fiddler, who will look to reprise his role of faceoff and penalty killing specialist for the Stars.
In little over a calendar year, Nill has transformed the Stars from a playoff bubble team to a contender with an even more promising future. Not only that, but he has done so without handing out horrendous contracts and without having to sacrifice much of the current lineup. If that isn’t one of the most impressive managerial feats by a new GM, I don’t know what is.