DALLAS – New Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill talked a lot about culture change Monday. He wasn’t ready to discuss a coaching change.
Nill was formally introduced by the team after spending the past 15 years as an assistant GM with the Detroit Red Wings, who just extended the longest playoff streak in North American pro sports to 22 seasons.
Glen Gulutzan has coached the last two of five straight years without a trip to the post-season in Dallas. The Stars hold the option on the only remaining year in his contract.
Nill, who signed a five-year deal, says he wants to meet with everyone in the organization, Gulutzan included, before addressing a possible change.
“Right now, we’ve got a head coach,” said Nill, who was in Detroit’s front office for nearly 20 years. “I need to sit down with him.”
When Stars owner Tom Gaglardi announced the firing of Joe Nieuwendyk on Sunday, he had already hired the 55-year-old Nill. A journeyman player for nine seasons in the NHL, Nill built his reputation in scouting and managing the minor league teams.
The top four scorers for the Red Wings, led by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, were drafted and developed under Detroit general manager Ken Holland and Nill. The fifth—Damien Brunner—was signed as a free agent out of Switzerland.
Once Gaglardi decided to make a move, the search got real short when he found out Nill was interested after turning down numerous opportunities in previous years.
“I just think there’s no substitution for experience,” Gaglardi said. “If there’s one word to describe Jim Nill, that’s something he’s got boatloads of. He’s known around the league for being a hard-working guy and this is a big job.”
Just like Nieuwendyk before him, Nill is a general manager for the first time. The difference is that Nieuwendyk, who was playoff MVP when the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999 but couldn’t lead Dallas to the post-season in four years as GM, was just two years removed from his playing days. He essentially worked as a GM in training in Toronto and Florida.
Nill played his last game for the Red Wings in 1990 and spent three years in the scouting department with Ottawa before joining the Red Wings, who have won four Stanley Cup titles with him in the front office.
As for why Nill didn’t pass on this chance like he did the others, it was simple—the owner, and his own gut feeling.
“I don’t know if it’s so much the timing as it is the right people in place,” said Nill, a native of Hanna, Alberta. “The ownership is strong. The management team is strong. I’m from Canada. I’m a hockey guy. I didn’t want to go to a market where you’re on the back page.”
It’s been awhile since the Stars were front-page news, though. A long playoff drought was unfathomable a decade ago, when Dallas had a four-year stretch that included 73 post-season games. Now it’s becoming a habit to go home in April.
“I wouldn’t be standing here if everything was rosy,” Nill said. “There wouldn’t be a change. That’s why we get hired. I know there’s a challenge here, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Starting with a culture change, which Nill says begins with the young players.
Sure, it was great when the Stars surged and improbably kept their playoff hopes alive with a young roster after Nieuwendyk traded captain Brenden Morrow and veterans Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy at the deadline when it looked like Dallas was done.
But the Stars lost their last five games when they started that stretch with control of their playoff fate. With their long post-season streak in jeopardy, the Red Wings won four straight to finish the season, including a 3-0 win at Dallas in the finale.
“It’s one thing to come up for a 10-game stint at the end of the year and give it all,” Nill said. “Now when you get in that everyday grind … are you going to do it 82 games or are you going to do it 10 games?”
Nill inherits an offensive core of leading scorer Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Ray Whitney, who turns 41 next month. The leading defenders are Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley.
Those team leaders are going home with the burden of extending the 46-year-old franchise’s record for consecutive seasons without a trip to the playoffs. Before the current drought, the longest was a three-year dry spell as the Minnesota North Stars from 1973-76.
“When you come to the rink there are certain expectations and when you leave the rink, you have those same expectations,” Nill said. “The season’s over. That doesn’t mean things change. You’ve got to live your life the same way.”
Nill will try to make the Detroit way work in Dallas.
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