About the only smarter thing the Dallas Stars did than signing Jim Nill to a five-year extension was signing him to run their hockey operations in the first place three years ago. To be sure, the Stars have benefited from Nill, who like most prospects produced by the Detroit Red Wings, was over-ripe when he took the job in Dallas.
The Stars cemented their commitment to Nill on Friday when they announced they’ve signed him to a five-year contract extension. Because he’s only two years into the five-year contract he inked with Dallas in 2013, it’s essentially a seven-year commitment that has Nill and the Stars inexorably linked until 2023. You can't do these kinds extensions of with players anymore because the collective bargaining agreement doesn't allow it. But you can do it with your front office and the smart teams know how important it is to devote your resources to good people.
It’s no accident that Nill hit the ground running in Dallas and has proved to be a GM capable of putting together a championship-caliber roster in a relatively short amount of time. Nill was 54 years old when he secured his first GM job and prior to that, had done just about every job there was to do in the game.
Nill played 524 games in the NHL and had been a player-coach in the minors before becoming a scout for the Ottawa Senators. Since then, he’s scouted, been a director of scouting, been an assistant GM, assembled international teams and run the operations of an American League team. And he did it in Detroit, where the commitment to winning is paramount and the training ground has arguably the most solid foundation in the league.
It was about the time of the lockout in 2005 that Red Wings owner Mike Illitch signed both GM Ken Holland and Nill to five-year contracts. Nill wanted some security. His wife was having some health issues and his children were in high school and he didn’t want to be moving around. So he took the five-year deal and became the highest-paid assistant GM in the NHL. In fact, his pay stub in his final years with the Red Wings rivaled those of a number of GMs in the league. In return, though, Illitch had it expressly written into Nill’s contract that the Red Wings had the right to deny permission for Nill to talk to any other teams about job openings. And almost every time a team came calling, permission was denied.
That all changed in 2013 when Dallas was looking for a new GM. By this time Nill was on a new deal with the Red Wings with a similar provision, but a window allowing him to talk to other teams was approaching. Stars president and CEO Jim Lites – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Martin - has very close ties to the Red Wings and was able to get the Wings to open that window a little early and had no hesitation hiring him when he became available.
And it has turned out gloriously for them. Nill immediately proved he would not be afraid to make a blockbuster deal when he acquired Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins. His long-term signing of defenseman John Klingberg is looking more and more like a stroke of genius. Lindy Ruff has been the perfect fit as coach. Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya have brought a championship attitude to Dallas and the unlikely goaltending duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi has been more than adequate. Jason Spezza has contributed in a secondary role. The Stars cover up more than a few defensive warts with superior firepower and we all know how well that works in the playoffs, but to have his team battling for first place overall in the NHL standings proves Nill knows how to put together a legitimate contending roster.
Too often, people in hockey get put into jobs they’re not ready to do and they’re set up for failure. That goes for everyone from players to coaches to management personnel. There was no danger in that happening with Nill because of his level of experience and the lessons he had learned in Detroit.
There have been some stumbles, to be sure. The free-agent signings of Ales Hemsky and Sergei Gonchar have landed with a rather loud thud - but even then, he was able to parlay Gonchar into Travis Moen - and for all their talent, the Stars took a step backward last season when they failed to make the playoffs. But the long-term picture in Dallas looks very, very good and a big reason for that is Nill. And the Stars can take comfort in the fact that he’ll be there for a very long time.