Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.
Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.
They were at it again this past summer when they went big-game hunting and landed starting goalie Ben Bishop, free agent winger Alexander Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Marc Methot.
Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.
The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.
[Related: The Stars are winning another offseason, will the results follow?]
The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.
Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?
More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.
They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.
Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.
In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.
Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.
Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.
Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.
But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.
At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.
It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?
It is a question that is probably worth asking.
At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.