Boy, Jim Nill sure is good at making everyone else look bad.
You know the type of guy I'm talking about. You can barely remember to swing by the grocery store to pick up some flowers for Valentine's Day. Meanwhile, he's planned months in advance to pick up his wife from work in a limo, whisk her to the airport and jet off for a weekend in some exotic locale.
The general manager of the Stars is just one of those guys. Not that he's trying to show up anyone—for instance, the Jets' Kevin Cheveldayoff or the Maple Leafs' Dave Nonis, GMs who took the rudders of their teams a year or so before Nill did likewise in Dallas. It's just that Nill has his own approach to turning around a floundering franchise. And it just happens to be a whole lot better than what others are doing. (Full disclosure—I worked with, but not for, the Stars organization as an off-ice official for several years.)
The roster that Nill inherited when he took the job just over a year ago was a mess of serviceable but ill-fitting parts, good enough to keep the team competitive but five years removed from actually reaching the postseason. No one would have thought anything of it if he had announced plans to blow the team up and pursue a classic rebuild, preaching patience and the virtues of the draft and taking his lumps while waiting for the kids to grow up.
But Nill knew he didn't have to wait. And he knew the draft-and-hold model wasn't the only way to get a franchise back on course.
He recognized that strength down the middle is paramount in today's NHL, and he knew his top two centers--Derek Roy and the miscast Jamie Benn--weren't good enough to compete in the West. He had to address that.
A year later, he has Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza lining up down the middle.
Seriously, who does that?
It should have been impossible. But that's the thing about Nill. There's no paper shuffling. No illusion of activity. He understands there's a price to pay to realize his vision and it's one that other rebuilding teams are to afraid to consider. He'll move kids in a deal—and not just any kids. Some of his best.
Nill was willing to sacrifice two of the organization's best prospects—Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser—along with other significant assets, to acquire Seguin from the Bruins last summer. Then he had the guts to package NHL-ready winger Alex Chiasson with two other promising youngsters in order to acquire Spezza from the Senators last month.
And just like that, the Stars' most glaring weakness became their biggest strength.
Oh, and some of the kids that Nill retained in the system—Brett Ritchie, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak, among others—just contributed to a Calder Cup championship for the Texas Stars last month. So Nill has positioned Dallas to win now and win later.
That's not so say that Nill has hit every pitch he's seen into the bleachers. Last summer's Sergei Gonchar signing was a painful bust and the decision to deal Stephane Robidas before the deadline didn't help the Stars' playoff chances. And there's room to criticize his contentment with the team's current group of defensemen. But say this about the GM: He's not content to leave the bat on his shoulder if there's a ball near the strike zone.
Meanwhile in Winnipeg, Cheveldayoff numbly soldiers on with a core that has no idea how to win, a tent-pole star who doesn't want to be there and arguably the worst starting goalie in the entire league. What does Chevy do this summer? He picks up Mathieu Perreault to replace Olli Jokinen, waffles on the continuing Evander Kane situation and does nothing to support or replace Ondrej Pavelec, despite the availability of an abundance of keepers with starter potential in free agency. But what else to expect from a man whose boldest move in the last three years was swapping Johnny Oduya for a pair of draft picks?
And in Toronto, Nonis has settled for rearranging deck chairs, swapping out a couple of depth players and hiring a pair of new assistant coaches—ex-Panthers bench boss Peter Horachek and former AHL Marlies coach Steve Spott—to help embattled Randy Carlyle get the Leafs back on course as they wait and pray for a middling group of kids to pan out.
Neither team is likely to dodge another playoff DNQ any time soon.
Granted, there are factors at work here beyond philosophy. Budget, desirability of market, and competitiveness can impact a GM's ability to make significant changes. Both the Jets and the Maple Leafs have problems in those areas. Winnipeg may as well be Novosibirsk. Toronto is closing in on 50 years of failure in a media-saturated market where even the slightest slip takes up residence on the front page.
But it's not like Dallas has been a hot destination, either. It's a town that appears on plenty of no-trade lists, including, initially, Spezza's. Sure, you can golf 50 weeks of the year and the absence of a state income tax is a nice bargaining chip. But so is winning, and this team is only now figuring out how to do that after years of ineffective play.
It's to Nill's credit then that he has not only figured out a way to work around his market's limitations, but that he's also had the courage to make hard choices. Nill hasn't turned the Stars overnight into Stanley Cup contenders, but he has given them direction. He's given them an image.
And maybe most importantly, he's given Dallas hope. Not just for years down the road, but for this season.
And that's making some other GMs look bad.