The Stars align - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

The Stars align

They can taste glory in the Lone Star State. With a mix of established talent and exciting youngsters, the Stars broke into the upper echelon of contenders this past season. To win the West, however, they needed some hired guns. Enter a trio of free-agent drifters looking for redemption and a chance to sip from the Stanley Cup.
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Jim Nill has been around. The Dallas Stars GM won four Stanley Cups during his 19-year tenure with the Detroit Red Wings organization, and he has been the man in Dallas for six seasons to date. So when the opportunity came knocking on a variety of fronts July 1, the veteran exec was ready to pounce. His Stars came within a Game 7 double-overtime goal of knocking out the eventual champs from St. Louis in the second round. Now Dallas has the weapons to go all the way.

The headliner of the summer free-agent haul was erstwhile San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, joined by a pair of fallen veterans bought out by their previous teams: Corey Perry of Anaheim and Andrej Sekera of Edmonton. Pavelski saw the cap space writing on the wall in San Jose, while Perry and Sekera are ready to prove they’re still fit after catastrophic injuries.

With an excellent core already established in Dallas, Nill has now given his team the depth necessary to be a true contender in the West. And that’s a big reason why the new guys signed up in the first place. “There was always the thought that if we were going to leave San Jose, we weren’t just going to go to the highest bidder,” Pavelski said. “There were definitely some boxes we wanted to check off. We wanted to feel like the team was close to winning, and playing against the Stars and seeing the season they had, they checked those boxes.”

Some of those other boxes? A good goalie, good defense and high-end forwards. To that end, Dallas counts Ben Bishop, Vezina Trophy runner-up and owner of a .934 save percentage. On defense: a pair of puck-moving wizards in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. Up front: the triumvirate of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov.

Benn was in town when Pavelski made his visit to Dallas during the pre-July 1 window, and having the former Sharks rival over to his home helped the sales pitch. “We had a lot of good laughs and inside jokes,” Pavelski said. “It was nice to hang out.”

We weren’t just going to go to the highest bidder. there were boxes to check off. we wanted to feel like the team was close to winning– Joe Pavelski

To be sure, it’s going to be a little weird to see Pavelski wearing Victory Green on opening night when he’s been plastered in teal the past 13 seasons, but that’s the business of hockey. With Erik Karlsson signing a mega-contract in San Jose and youngsters such as Timo Meier needing new pacts, there was only so much cap space to go around.

Pavelski also wanted the security of a three-year contract, much like another former Sharks veteran, Patrick Marleau. Not surprisingly, Marleau reached out to Pavelski before July 1 to let him know he was there for any questions. Given Pavelski recently turned 35, there is some risk in giving him $7 million per year for the next three years (ask Toronto about the Marleau gamble), but he’s still confident in his game.

“I don’t know what age people say your prime is, but some of my best years have been from 30 to 35,” Pavelski said. “There’s no reason that number can’t stretch to 35, 36 and 37, and I believe that.”

And, in a nice display of self-awareness, the center/right winger also notes his skating has always been seen as a weakness – so it’s not like he was succeeding because of young-man wheels before.

But making the move from the only NHL franchise he has ever known is naturally strange for Pavelski. The realization he was leaving came gradually, though he doesn’t want to forget the bonds he had before. “It’s hard leaving friends there, and it’s even harder leaving teammates,” he said. “It was a special time.”

That’s a sentiment Perry understands. While Pavelski went to the final with the Sharks, Perry won a Cup with the Ducks and has been synonymous with the organization for years. “They gave me a chance to play in the NHL, and that’s every boy’s dream,” Perry said. “They gave that to me, and I’m very thankful. It’s always going to be home in my heart.”

But again: business is business. Perry blew out his knee in training camp this past season and when he returned to the Ducks, he was a shell of his former self: the one-time Hart and Rocket Richard Trophy winner tallied just six goals in 31 games. Anaheim bought out the final two years of his contract, giving Dallas the opportunity to scoop up the 34-year-old on a very digestible one-year contract worth $1.5 million, plus performance bonuses. “He’s still got the fire in him and wants to win,” Nill said. “That’s what excites me. He’s going to have a bounceback year.”

Nill believes Perry tried to come back too early from the injury, and Perry himself says he is back to 100 percent health now. But can he be an offensive factor again? Outside doubt is all the motivation Perry needs right now, and he too has a Benn connection – the two won gold together at the 2014 Sochi Olympics for Canada on a line with another classic Duck, Ryan Getzlaf.

Benn also reached out to Perry after he signed with Dallas. “We had great chemistry,” Perry said. “When I left there, I thought the world of him. He’s a heck of a hockey player and to be on the same team again, hopefully we can rekindle that chemistry.”

Sekera comes to Dallas much like Perry: previously broken and cast aside but on the mend and ready for redemption. The puck-moving defenseman had injuries in two straight seasons that hurt his effectiveness in Edmonton: a knee injury in 2017-18, then a torn Achilles tendon in the summer of 2018 that cost him much of 2018-19.

Edmonton bought out his contract, but the Stars saw a healthy Sekera play for Slovakia at the 2019 World Championship and were comfortable inking him to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus bonuses. “Dallas was very straightforward,” Sekera said. “They offered me a contract, and it was a no-brainer for me to take it…I know the situation I was in the past two years, but now I’m healthy and ready to roll. I know I have a lot of things to prove, and that’s the engine that drives me.”

Sekera’s station in life will be quite different than it was in Edmonton. For one, he’s not taking up $5.5 million worth of cap space. More importantly, however, is that at 33, he won’t need to carry a big load on the back end. Klingberg is the main man, while the phenom Heiskanen has shot out of the gates as one of the most exciting and effective young defensemen in the NHL today.

And make no mistake: these were all win-now moves. Not only are all three new Stars in the latter stages of their careers, but Dallas had to jettison a couple of youngsters to make it all work under the cap. Val Nichushkin, a 2013 first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the franchise and just 24, was bought out before July 1 after a season featuring zero goals and zero penalty minutes and numerous healthy scratches. Meanwhile, Ryan Hartman was basically only a Star on paper, as the gritty 24-year-old was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia in late June, then allowed to walk as a UFA when it became clear a contract wouldn’t fit in Dallas.

These guys have won at every level. there’s a pedigree that comes with that. it excites us – Jim Nill

There is no time like the present in Texas. Nill has fortified a squad that came together under rookie coach Jim Montgomery and is now ready to take on the West. “You’re always trying to add scoring, and it’s hard to do,” Nill said. “That’s where some of these players came in to play. And you can never be competitive enough. These guys are very competitive, and they’ve won at every level – they’re marquee players. There’s a pedigree that comes with that, and that’s what excites us.”

It’s been 20 years since the first championship in Dallas, and now some old hands are coming together for one more score. “They have everything I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. “They’re on the verge of putting something really great together, and I want to be a part of that.”