When the Dallas Stars failed to make the playoffs in 2012-13 – the fifth such result in the past five seasons – owner Tom Gaglardi had seen enough. He fired head honcho Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Glen Gulutzan and hired longtime – and long coveted – Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill to oversee on-ice operations as the team’s new GM.
That was on April 29. In the little more than two months that followed, Nill was a one-man front-end loader for the Stars, eschewing the more popular patient approach in favor of an aggressive remake of the franchise’s landscape. Via a slew of trades and an intriguing first-round draft pick, the Stars are now a drastically different team – and they’re doing things the Red Wings way. And that will pay big dividends now in and in the future.
By far the biggest move of Nill’s tenure in Dallas was the seven-player blockbuster July 4 deal that brought in centers Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley from Boston for left winger Loui Eriksson. Eriksson had blossomed in Dallas, but an opportunity to acquire a potential No. 1 center in Seguin makes that deal worth the risk.
And yes, I say that knowing: (a) Seguin’s reputation as a nightlife aficionado; and (b) two homophobic Tweets appeared on his feed in the span of a few months (Seguin maintains his account was hacked in both instances). After speaking with Nill and deleting his Twitter account, the potential for egg-on-face in the future should diminish. And in Texas, his lessened celebrity status in the sporting community should help him keep his social adventures a little further under the radar.
But that wasn’t the sole move Nill made to address the team’s deficiencies down the middle. He traded for Oilers mainstay Shawn Horcoff at the inexpensive cost of D-man Philip Larsen and a 2016 seventh-round pick. The real cost is assuming Horcoff’s $5.5-million cap hit for the next two seasons, but there too Nill is taking a calculated, smart risk: Horcoff’s contract was front-loaded and his salary is only $4 million this season and $3 million in 2014-15. For budget purposes, Horcoff is a $3.5-million-a-season player – a number far more in line with his actual market value.
Nill also dealt a conditional sixth-round pick to Ottawa for negotiating rights to Sergei Gonchar, then signed the Stanley Cup-winning blueliner to a two-year, $10-million contract. Now, Gonchar is 39 and not at his peak, but he had a bounce-back year last season and averaged nearly 24 minutes a game. He’ll ease the load on Dallas’ other defenders and can still produce points at a decent clip (27 in 45 games in 2013).
Gonchar won’t be the only Russian putting up points for the Stars. In what could be an incredible stroke of luck, left winger Valeri Nichushkin fell to Dallas with the No. 10 pick in the draft. The Russian sniper was projected in THN’s Draft Preview to go at No. 5, so landing him and quickly signing him to an entry-level deal has to be considered a coup.
In short order, a Stars squad that was in large part a one-line team now is more defensively responsible with Horcoff and Peverley and more capable on offense with Seguin, Gonchar and Nichushkin. Nill’s restocking at center allows the team to shift star Jamie Benn back to his natural position of left wing. And perhaps most importantly, the infusion of veteran experience can allow Dallas’ youngsters to develop at their own pace.
The jury will be out on Nill’s decisions until the game results are in, but he’s already shown why he was so valued in Detroit – and why Stars fans are likely to appreciate him even more.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.