May 14, 2018 | 1:07pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
OFF-SEASON COULD DEFINE NILL’S TENURE AS STARS GM
Jim Nill, Stars GM
MONTREAL, QC -- When Jim Nill took over the position of General Manager of the Dallas Stars in April of 2013, he inherited a franchise that was in transition. The days of Mike Modano and Marty Turco had long past, and core players Brad Richards and then-captain Brendan Morrow had recently moved on. The club was in the process of handing the reigns to budding superstar Jamie Benn, and Nill’s arrival was true to that.
Fast forward five years, and the Stars have yet to enjoy true playoff success during Nill’s tenure.
Nill has been one of the more active GMs over the last five years. He opened his career as GM by pulling off a blockbuster deal to acquire star centre Tyler Seguin. His activity on the open market has stayed consistent over the years, as he has landed players like Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Sergei Gonchar. Just last summer, Nill inked Alex Radulov and Ben Bishop to five and six-year deals, respectively.
But despite his attempts to propel this team forward, the Stars have yet to make a significant push under Nill’s watch, ultimately missing the playoffs the last two seasons.
On a team that has Benn (79 points), Seguin (78 points) and Radulov (72 points), it wouldn’t seem as though team offense would be an issue; but it proved to be just that for Dallas this season.
After the team’s Big Three, their highest scoring forward this season was Mattias Janmark with 34 points.
The Stars endured disappointing seasons from free agent acquisition Martin Hanazal (10 points) and the veteran-centre Spezza (26 points), who fell out of favor with former Head Coach Ken Hitchcock and often played in a fourth line role.
Spezza, who will turn 35 in July, has one-year remaining on his contract that carries an AAV of $7.5 million, and will hope to get a clean slate under new Head Coach Jim Montgomery. Hanzal’s minimal impact had much to do with his injury-plagued season, as the forward played in just 35 games.
Defensively, the team watched 25-year-old defenseman John Klingberg post a remarkable season, notching a career-high 67 points. Along with Esa Lindell (27 points, +19) and 2017 third-overall pick Miro Heiskanen, the Stars have set themselves up nicely on the backend for the future.
In goal, Bishop, 31, had a decent inaugural season (.916 save percentage, 2.49 GAA) with the Stars. His biggest challenge next season will be staying healthy, which was truly his biggest adversary this year, enduring several injuries in the latter half of the season. With five years remaining on his contract, Bishop is the guy in goal for Dallas for the foreseeable future.
With the Stars having so many key pieces in place to build a Stanley Cup contender, Nill will most definitely turn his attention to the depth scoring. The team’s need for scoring beyond their “big three” was evident all season. Overall, the Stars finished 18th in goals-for this season.
The expected return of 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin should push the Stars in the right direction.
Nichushkin, 23, has spent the past two seasons in the KHL after struggling to see eye-to-eye with then-Head Coach Lindy Ruff. The former 10th overall pick scored at a 0.6 points-per-game rate in the KHL over the last two years, and the Stars hope he can continue that trend in the NHL.
But Nill will have to do more than just rely on the return of Nichushkin. The team’s top priority will be acquiring a NHL-proven scoring winger this off-season.
Nill may look to turn his attention to David Perron of the Vegas Golden Knights come July 1.
Perron, who will turn 30-years old in less than two weeks, is coming off of a career-year, tallying 66 points in 70 games with Vegas. His contract is set to expire this summer, and it’s unclear if he’ll be returning to the Golden Knights – testing the free agent waters may be likely.
If Nill looks to scour the trade-market, he may turn his attention to Montreal Canadiens left wing Mac Pacioretty. The 29-year-old, who has been at the heart of trade discussions all season long, has one-year remaining on his contract, carrying a cap-friendly AAV of $4.5 million.
Whether or not the Stars would be willing to give up the asking price for Pacioretty (which is rumored to be hefty and include a young centre) in a trade is yet to be seen, but Pacioretty would be just what the Stars need: a perennial 30-goal scoring winger.
Nill’s unquestioned determination to bring Dallas its second Stanley Cup has been evident, but the results have left a lot to be desired. Under Nill’s reign, the team has failed to reach the Western Conference Final and overall has missed the playoffs in three of five seasons. With Montgomery now being the team’s third head coach since 2013, the pressure is on Nill for the Stars to win.
Another big factor this summer for Nill and the Stars revolves around the future of Seguin, who is eligible to sign a contract extension as soon as July 1. The Stars will need to show Seguin the team is headed in a direction and also be willing to pull up the brinks truck.
Seguin, 26, will be in the market for a contract similar to that of Benn’s (eight years, $78 million) and may even seek a larger deal. With Seguin’s next contract likely to hit eight-years, Nill will have to paint a promising picture for Seguin to re-sign and spend the balance of his best playing years in Dallas. But would he do so at a ‘hometown’ discount?
This off-season may prove to be no easy task for the Stars, and Nill has his work cut out for him. For better or worse, Nill’s future may be riding on what happens in the coming months.