Analysis: Thanks to Nill, Stars are Contenders Again
After almost 19 years working under Ken Holland to build the Detroit Red Wings into a perennial Stanley Cup contender, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill needed 14 months and two days to put his new team in the middle of the competitive arms race in the Western Conference.
Nill gave the Stars the ammunition they needed Tuesday by acquiring Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza in a trade and signing Senators forward Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract reportedly worth $12 million.
Spezza is signed for one season at a $7 million NHL salary-cap charge, but he's owed $4 million in salary.
The only player Nill took off the NHL roster was forward Alex Chiasson, whose scoring touch dried up 10 games into last season and was a minus-21 on a team that finished a plus-8 overall.
Nill also signed Anders Lindback to be the backup goalie to Kari Lehtonen, but no matter who is between the pipes he should have plenty of offensive support with a top-six forward group featuring Seguin, captain Jamie Benn, Spezza, Hemsky and second-year forward Valeri Nichushkin.
"You start adding players like Spezza and Hemsky to your team you know you're going to be dangerous offensively," Nill said. "It's hard to score goals in this League, and we think we added some guys that can help take care of that problem."
Nill started Dallas' turnaround last June when he hired Lindy Ruff to coach and selected Nichushkin with the No. 10 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Nill bolstered the franchise on July 4 when he acquired Tyler Seguin and Shawn Horcoff in separate trades.
The Stars made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Acquiring Spezza might be Nill's shrewdest move yet, as well as the most noteworthy sign of where the Stars could go. He gave up Chiasson, two prospects and a second-round draft pick to bolster an area of need the Stars had to shore up in order to take the next step toward challenging the giants in the Western Conference.
Elite center depth is paramount to winning in the West. The Los Angeles Kings proved that last season with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter helping carry them to the Stanley Cup championship as their top two centers.
Carter is better than a lot of No. 1s, but he couldn't be that in L.A. because of Kopitar, who Wayne Gretzky called the third-best player in the NHL behind centers Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.
The rest of the contenders in the West have since responded to the Kings' depth at center, most notably with the Anaheim Ducks acquiring Ryan Kesler last week and the St. Louis Blues signing Paul Stastny on Tuesday. The Stars had to do the same to keep up.
"If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it," Nill said of elite center depth. "I came from Detroit, we always had it. It was Yzerman-Fedorov, Zetterberg-Datsyuk. You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team."
Now the Stars can call it a strength.
They have Seguin and Spezza at the top of their lineup, but down the line they have Cody Eakin and Horcoff. Nill said Eakin should fit in as a No. 3 center, but he's capable of moving up and down the lineup. Horcoff is perfectly slotted as a No. 4 at this stage of his career.
"Lindy has a lot of flexibility here with his lineup," Nill said. "Last season we had the one elite first line and we were kind of a team of three really good second [and] third lines. I think a lot of our success was our depth, and we just think we added to that."
Nill ensured his top two lines will have chemistry. The Stars already had Benn to play with Seguin. They made up one of the NHL's top scoring duos last season with a combined 71 goals and 163 points.
Spezza and Hemsky displayed instant chemistry in Ottawa in the final quarter of the season after Hemsky arrived in a trade from the Edmonton Oilers. Hemsky had 17 points in 20 games with the Senators. Spezza had 20 points in 18 games during the same span.
"Once we got Jason that became more of a great situation we thought to bring in Ales Hemsky," Nill said. "It worked out well."
The fact Spezza has one year left on his contract and is owed $4 million made him even more attractive to Dallas and should make the Stars a more intriguing, and perhaps even better, team. Spezza should be motivated to earn another long-term contract, perhaps with the Stars, but Nill is in the envious position of being under no pressure to begin negotiations on an extension.
Nill said he will talk to Spezza's agent, Rick Curran, at some point this summer likely to gauge interest and Spezza's potential asking price, but he can and should wait to see how Spezza fits in before engaging in serious talks.
Nill has the luxury of seeing firsthand the type of impact Spezza can have in Dallas before committing anything more.
"I just wanted to get Jason in here and get him going," Nill said. "I know he's going to love the city, he's going to love the team, we've got a great dressing room. I think we've got a lot of good things going here and he's very excited to get here. We'll get him in, get things going and then we'll start working on an extension."
Whatever happens in those negotiations, bank on Nill doing the right thing.
He had a clear vision for where he felt the Stars could and should go when he got the job on April 29, 2013. His first season was successful beyond expectations. Tuesday, he laid the foundation for his second season to be even better.
The Stars are contenders again. It didn't take very long either.