Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill's big gambles bringing early returns

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Gambles like drafting Valeri Nichushkin (left) and acquiring Tyler Seguin are paying off in Dallas. (USATSI)
Gambles like drafting Valeri Nichushkin (left) and acquiring Tyler Seguin are paying off in Dallas. (USATSI)

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It has been less than eight months since Jim Nill took over as the general manager of the Dallas Stars. In that short time frame, he has hired a new coach, swung a blockbuster trade and drafted a potential franchise cornerstone. With each of those moves, Nill has gambled a bit. Each gamble has been necessary to pull the Stars, a once dominant franchise in the NHL that has lacked any sort of identity of late, out of the doldrums and a postseason drought that has lasted since 2008.

Nill, who came to the Stars after 19 years as a key cog in the Detroit Red Wings organization and long considered one of the top general manager candidates in hockey, didn't have a lot of work to do on the roster he inherited from Joe Nieuwendyk, but it certainly needed a face lift.

The first order of business was to hire Lindy Ruff to replace Glen Gulutzan, who Nill decided not to renew a third-year option on. Ruff wasn't necessarily the obvious choice as the Stars are still very much a team in transition. The longtime Sabres coach had been on the wrong end of Buffalo's transition when he was let go last season.

However, in Ruff, Nill was able to bring in a coach that knows the league well and has had success in it. He needed a steady hand to steer a ship that had gone off course, but wasn't completely lost. It may yet require patience from Ruff with many young players that should figure more prominently in the future.

Up next, Nill had the NHL Draft, which is where he really made a name for himself while with the Red Wings. With the 10th overall pick the Stars were bound to get a solid player in the deep 2013 prospect pool, but the decision Nill was met with was not an easy one.

Valeri Nichushkin, a clear top-five talent if talent was the only factor, was available. Due to his being Russian and the fact that a KHL team had recently made a large monetary commitment to acquiring his rights, Nichushkin was seen as a high-risk pick. If his name were Vic Nicholson, he could have challenged Nathan MacKinnon for No. 1. The circumstances surrounding Nichushkin, however, still created warranted concern.

Nill didn't bat an eye, however. Knowing at No. 10, there was no way he could pass on elite talent, the Russian Factor wasn't a factor at all for the Stars rookie GM. They picked the big Russian and Nichushkin immediately reported to Dallas, signed his contract and made the team's opening night roster.

Then came the move that could come to define Nill's tenure, however long it lasts in Dallas. With the Bruins dangling 21-year-old Tyler Seguin, reportedly growing tired of his off-ice antics and the fact he wasn't fitting into the team's culture, Nill pounced.

The total package sent the Bruins longtime Stars sniper Loui Eriksson, promising youngster Reilly Smith and prospects Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow. Dallas received Seguin, veteran Rich Peverley and prospect Ryan Button.

Concerns over Seguin's lack of maturity and the fact he had underperformed last season, particularly in the playoffs, on top of his rich long-term contract made him a potentially risky addition. The skill level and his age, however, kept the potential for reward extremely high.

Fast-forward to this season and the Stars are, at this point, a middle-of-the-pack team. They are going to be in tough battling for a wildcard playoff spot in the very challenging Western Conference. That said, Nill's big gambles are already bringing some early returns.

Seguin is the team's leading scorer with 15 goals and 27 points. His arrival has also energized Stars captain Jamie Benn, who is second on the team with 26 points while playing on a line with Seguin. Benn had a fair season after a late start due to a contract dispute in the shortened 2012-13 season, but he wasn't playing up to his ability.

Nichushkin recently got promoted to the top line with Seguin and Benn and the results have been better than good. The 18-year-old Russian phenom has seven points in his last three games, including a four-point effort Saturday against the Flyers.

More than that though, Nichushkin is showing improvement in his first NHL season. Consider the fact that he is only just learning English and had spent the vast majority of his career on big ice sheets in Russia, the fact that he's coming around so quickly bodes incredibly well for the future.

“I am very happy with the way [Nichushkin] has acclimated himself,” Nill told the Stars' official website. “Where I am really impressed is his attention to detail on the other parts of the game. The defensive part he is very aware, he backchecks hard, he's good in his own zone. Usually 18-year-old kids at any level don't care about that, but he's very responsible. If he's not scoring, he is still doing a great job at the other end.”

There's a chance the 6-foot-4, 205-pound winger develops into an elite talent in the league. It will take years to fully judge how well Nill did in nabbing him with the 10th overall pick, but the early returns are encouraging.

What makes this year's Stars team so interesting is what it says about the future of the franchise.

Seguin has certainly had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the club. He and Benn provide a formidable one-two punch. Nill can thank Nieuwendyk for locking up Benn through 2016-17 at a very reasonable $5.25 million annual cap hit. Seguin's deal, which was signed while with the Bruins, goes to 2018-19 with an annual hit at $5.75 million.

Nichushkin still will have two years left on his cheap entry-level contract before becoming a restricted free agent. Assuming he stays on his current development arc, it shouldn't take too long for him to become an impact player in the league.

The pieces are in place for Dallas to build. On top of the trio of Benn, Nichushkin and Seguin, the team also has young Brenden Dillon, who is developing into a very good defenseman. He becomes a restricted free agent in the offseason and the team should be looking to lock him up with a reasonable raise.

Alex Goligoski is also starting to turn things around this year and could be part of that core group that every team needs as a starting point. Alex Chiasson is another forward who could figure into that group as well.

The Stars also have one of the most under-appreciated goaltenders in the league in Kari Lehtonen. Though his injury history is always cause for concern, the Finnish netminder is among the best in the league at his position when healthy. He is locked up through 2017-18.

Heading into next season, when the Stars very well could be a favorite to make the playoffs in the Central Division, the team has veterans like Erik Cole, Rich Peverley and Sergei Gonchar who can help them get over the hump as all still will be under contract.

Nill also could get some work done this season via trade to help find more building blocks. The defense will need some shoring up if the team is going to take that next step. Vernon Fiddler, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, among a few others, could be trade bait as a result.

Based on what was left to him and the pieces that he added despite a certain level of risk attached to each, Nill is putting everything together for a rather quick turnaround in Dallas. The playoff drought may not end this year, but it should soon.

Nill won't have the money to spend to the cap, more than likely, so it will take more creativity to help the franchise not only take a step towards the postseason, but long-term competitiveness. Seeing as Nill has already made a few moves many other general managers wouldn't (and didn't), he's not afraid to be creative.

 
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