Jim Nill has been the architect behind one of the more dramatic makeovers across the National Hockey League this off-season.
The Dallas Stars have brought back Ken Hitchcock to coach the team, Ben Bishop is the new No. 1 goaltender, and Alex Radulov will add another layer of offense to a potentially dynamic first line.
Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot will also bolster the center and defensive depth – two areas with which teams thinking themselves contenders need to be concerned.
“We’re happy where we’re at,” Nill, the team’s general manager, indicated during a Tuesday afternoon appearance on Edmonton’s 630 CHED. “It’s been a busy spring/summer, I think, for the whole NHL when you consider expansion, the draft, and everything else.
“We knew going in this year that we were going to have room to do some things, regardless of what happened the previous season. We’re fortunate. We had the cap room, we had the cap space, and we didn’t have to give up a lot of assets to get what we acquired, which was good for us.”
The Stars fell well short of expectations last season, failing to make the playoffs and earning only 79 points with a 34-37-11 mark.
That disappointing 2016-17 campaign followed a year that saw Dallas not only win the Central Division, but also the Western Conference. The Stars only trailed the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the overall standings.
Nill was asked about the pressure to turn this ship around quickly, given how badly events unfolded for the team.
“I wouldn’t say there was pressure,” Nill countered. “Like I said, we knew we were going to make some changes. Last year was a tough year. The injuries devastated our team and we’d end up chasing it. The league is too tight nowadays. If you get behind in this league, it’s tough to catch up. It’s too close. We’re all within three-to-five wins of each other. So it was a tough year that way.
“But I get back to we knew we were going to have cap room. We knew we were going to make some changes. Probably the silver lining was because of all of the injuries last year, we had a lot of young kids we brought up to have to fill in those roles. They got extra experience because of that. I think between the additions and the experience the younger players got, I’m looking forward to a pretty strong bounce-back year.”
One of the pillars on which this bounce-back season will ideally be built is Bishop, whose rights were acquired in early May from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
The pending unrestricted free agent signed a six-year, $29.5 million contract, giving the team a cap hit just a shade under the $5 million mark.
“Our job when we’re sitting in the front office here is if you get a chance to get better at any position, you try to do that every day,” said Nill. “We were fortunate that Ben was available. He wanted to come here. He was a free agent. He’s really probably the one that started this process for us. He came in on a pretty cap-friendly deal. He showed a commitment that he wants to win here. I think that helped us sell a lot of these other free agents that this was a place that you want to be. That was important for us.”
One key free agent that the Stars snagged was veteran winger Alex Radulov, who agreed to terms on a five-year, $31.25 million as an unrestricted free agent.
Nill was asked how hot that debate was internally about handing over a five-year term to the 31-year-old winger.
“Not a lot of debate,” said Nill. “First of all, we know who he is as a player. He’s a high-end, high-skill player. There’s a physical element to his game down low. He can hold onto pucks. He drives the net. He’s just turning 31, and when you look at a player’s skill level, how they look after themselves nowadays, we weren’t too worried about the five-year deal.
“We think he’s going to play with great players. He’s going to be with the Seguins, the Benns, the Spezzas, the Hanzals. He’s going to have some really good linemates.
“So in the end – there’s always risk with any contract – but in the end the five years wasn’t a big concern for us. It’s hard to find those type of guys on the market, and when he wanted to come to us it kind of made it more realistic for us.”
Radulov’s impact on the team should be fairly easily measured, but Marc Methot may not quite fall into that camp statistically speaking.
The 32-year-old defenseman, who was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, was subsequently traded to Dallas for Dylan Ferguson and a second-round pick in 2020.
“Those type of players like Marc Methot, they bring intangibles,” said Nill. “I know everybody – the analytic world gets out there and they see things, but there’s a certain value – you guys know, you guys are around teams all of the time – in the dressing room, in practices. It’s about being a pro every day. And Marc Methot is the type of guy that brings that.
“He might not be the fastest player, he might not be the most skilled player. But the things that they bring in the dressing room, on the ice, when it’s crunch time, when the chips are on the line – some of these guys, they have something special in them. That’s what Marc Methot is going to bring. He’s going to bring that experience. He’s going to bring some size. He’s going to bring some grit. And those are things you can never have enough of.”
One defenseman who should be seeing more games at the NHL level this season is 21-year-old Julius Honka, who was taken 14th overall by the Stars in the 2014 draft.
Honka played 16 games for the Stars last season, tallying five points, but spent the bulk of his time in the AHL. There, the rearguard collected 31 points in 50 starts.
“It’s definitely time for Julius,” confirmed Nill. “He went over to the world championships and played very well for Finland. He’s put in his time down in the minors. We brought him up two or three times last year. He played very well. When he was in the lineup our puck possession time really went up. So we’re looking forward to him making that next step.”
The Stars will open their 2017-18 campaign at home against the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday, October 6, and then will be on the road the following evening against the St. Louis Blues.