In the first segment of this series, we took a look at the tremendous success of Steve Yzerman…leading his team to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals after 5 seasons on the job.
This time, a look at the work of another Detroit Red Wings alumni, Jim Nill.
Nill took over the Dallas Stars in April 2013.
The Stars were coming off a season that saw them finish dead last in the Pacific Division…11th in the WC.
The Stars had missed the playoffs for 5 straight season many of which were played under the uncertainty of the ownership of Tom Hicks.
The team was purchased out of bankruptcy by Vancouver billionaire Tom Gaglardi during the 2011/12 season.
Gaglardi was not content with losing and, after only one season with the incumbent management group, cleaned house:
The day after their final regular season game of the 2012-13 season (a 3–0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings), the Stars fired General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. The next day, the Stars introduced their 11th all-time general manager, Jim Nill, the former assistant general manager of the Red Wings. On May 14, 2013, the coaching staff was also fired, and on May 31, 2013, Scott White was re-introduced as the director of hockey operations
It appears Nill also had little patience for losing and wasted little time in assessing the teams holes and setting out to fill them.
The Stars leading centre the previous season was Cody Eakin…a 21 year old who scored only 7 goals and 24 points the previous season.
Nill, taking to heart the sage advice from former boss Ken Holland in Detroit, knew he had to build his team up the middle and in a blockbuster series of moves, acquired centres Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff in his first offseason.
Those moves paid off when the Stars made the playoffs the following season but, to some degree, that was nothing more than a “dead cat bounce” because the Stars team defense was still highly suspect and the team needed secondary scoring.
In his second offseason, Nill didn’t rest on his laurels…he sent Alex Chiasson, a couple of prospects and a 2nd round pick to Ottawa for Jason Spezza.
He followed up that move by signing former Senator and Oiler Ales Hemsky to a 3 year contract.
The Stars would flounder in the 2014/15 season…sewered by sub par goaltending and, still, questionable team D but had the best record in the NHL after the all star break. (14W 5L 1OTL in the last 20 games).
To illustrate how poor the team was defensively, one need look no further than the fact that the Stars were the second highest scoring team in the league (3.13 GPG) behind only the Lightning but ranked 27 in the league (3.13 GAG).
It’s important to remember here that the Stars may have been even more potent offensively had a few issues not impacted things.
1) Jamie Benn played the entire season with two damaged hips but won the Art Ross Trophy in any event. Benn had offseason surgery and says his recovery is ahead of schedule.
2) Tyler Seguin was on pace for 51 goals before receiving a dirty low bridge hit from Dimitri Kulikov. Seguin missed 11 games but finished 2nd in the league (1.08 PPG) to Sidney Crosby (1.09 PPG).
3) Highly touted RW Valeri Nichushkin was limited to only 8 games also due to a hip injury but is also recovered.
4) Newly acquired centre Jason Spezza admits he had a bit of a down season while adapting to a new team but managed to score 17 goals and 62 points nonetheless. Spezza’s play picked up in the second half of the season and, of course there is this:
Just like with the Stars, Spezza excelled in a secondary role on a high-offense team. Canada scored 66 goals in 10 games, 26 more than the second-highest scoring team, Russia. Spezza, Seguin and Eakin scored 19 of Canada’s 66 goals in the tournament. Seguin led the tournament with nine goals in 10 games, and Eakin finished with four goals and two assists. Spezza tallied six goals and eight assists for 14 points, the most in the tournament. He was selected as the tournament’s top forward and was named to the All-Star team. Spezza finally won a goal medal in his third trip to the World Championship.
5) Ales Hemsky also needed hip surgery in the offseason and I expect he’ll be far more productive in the coming season:
“I can already feel I have more motion,” Hemsky told the Dallas Morning News in a report published Tuesday. “It’s just been two months and I know I have a long way to go, but I can feel the difference.”
Hemsky had 11 goals and 21 assists in 76 games last season playing the majority of the season alongside center Jason Spezza. Hemsky didn’t score his first goal of the season until Nov. 28 against the Minnesota Wild.
“It was a lot of pressure I was putting on myself, and I think I worked through that,” he said. “This feels completely different.”
Despite those woes, the Stars had a high octane offence last season but Nill added even more firepower a couple of weeks ago when he swung a trade for Patrick Sharp.
Sharp is only one season removed from a 34 goal 84 point season in Chicago and despite a drop off in 2014/15 where he had a shooting percentage of of only 7 percent (career 11.4) and was playing more than 2 mins/game less than the previous season, I think you can expect a big regression to the mean playing on the Stars 2nd line.
Sharp’s TOI, shot totals and shooting percentage should all jump next season closer to his career norms.
Despite how much I like the Sharp acquisition, the other player coming over in the trade may have a much more lasting impact. Steven Johns was Chicago’s best D prospect and many were shocked when he was included in the deal and, although, after a great season in the AHL, where he was the Ice Hogs best defenseman, he will have some work to do to crack the new and improved Dallas D.
And, of course, Nill pulled off the trifecta of adding former Blackhawks (signed Antti Niemi earlier) when he picked up Johnny Oduya who seems destined for a second pairing shut down role In Dallas.
There are some in the blog world who call into question the Stars D last season (and they did need the improvement Nill provided but, folks, they are starting at a very high level with young Stars Klingberg, Nemeth, Jokkipakka and Johns set to take the next step) and the addition of Oduya is a step up from Trevor Daley. Here’s a look from Defending Big D:
That chart, of course, doesn’t include either Johns or Jamie Oleksiak who are both NHL ready nor does it include Stars 2014 1st round draft pick Julius Honka who acquitted him self exceptionally well in his rookie season in the AHL.
Needless to say the Stars’ young D is loaded with Goligoski, Demers, Oduya and Benn providing veteran support.
In goal, the Stars suffered through a very bad early season from starter Kari Lehtonen (.903) and even worse backup goaltending so Nill added another veteran in Antti Niemi.
He’s been criticized for spending too much on goaltending but the Stars, even after all their acquisitions, remain well under the cap so that’s not valid.
If they get even career average goaltending from either or both vets, they’ll cut their GA by a huge margin.
I’d wager that will happen.
In speaking of the Stars drafting and development under Nill, I think we need to remember a couple of things about his former role in the Red Wings organization.
Not only was he the Wings’ Director of Amateur scouting from 1994 until his departure in 2013, but he was also the GM of the Wings AHL affiliate.
I don’t think we need to elaborate further on his spectacular record there but it’s very clear the man knows how to recognize talent all over the draft and develop those players at a very high level.
Nill only has 3 drafts under his belt in Dallas so it’s too early to call one way or the other but the aforementioned Nichushkin, Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson and Honka all appear to be blue chip prospects.
Hockey’s Future has Dallas ranked at #7 on their team ranking list and gives Nill his due:
Strengths: Dallas has extracted great value out of late-round draft picks, first with Jamie Benn, now with John Klingberg.
General Manager Jim Nill has a reputation as a scouting man, and has already re-acquired a pair of Red Wings picks with whom he was familiar in Mattias Janmark and Mattias Backman. This system has quite a few intriguing names and several players ready to graduate into NHL players.
Julius Honka leads a very deep pool of defenders. As a junior-eligible player playing as a rookie in the AHL, his scoring was modest and he made mistakes, but got excellent experience. Jamie Oleksiak is ready for a depth NHL role, and the same can be said for Patrik Nemeth, who suffered an injury early in the season. Esa Lindell had a spectacular season in Finland. Even after Lindell, there are several names that project to be good pros, starting with big and rough Jyrki Jokipakka, who got a two-year deal after establishing himself as a dependable presence for Dallas over the course of last season.
With that kind of spectacular depth in young D, I would imagine Nill will be filling out his prospect list with forwards in the next couple of drafts and he started by picking Denis Guryanov (Russia) and Roope Hintz (Finland) in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the 2015 draft.
Neither of them were highly touted but I certainly wouldn’t bet against Nill finding 2 more NHL forwards in those spots.
But, let’s be honest, the Stars offence is already the best in the league.
They have their Toews (Seguin) they have their Kane (Benn), they have their Sharp (Sharp) potentially their Hossa (Nichushkin) a superb second line centre (Spezza) and a strong supporting cast that includes centres Cody Eakin, Vern Fiddler and Colton Sceviour and wingers that include Hemsky, Antoine Roussel, Patrick Eaves, Brett Ritchie and Travis Moen.
If the D gels as I expect and the Stars get adequate goaltending, they will win the toughest division in hockey…the Central.