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Stars knew they had to get better this season, GM says

Nill discusses addition of Perry, growth of Heiskanen in wide-ranging conversation with

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Senior Director of Editorial

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Jim Nill knows what could have been for the Dallas Stars last season.

As a result, after Dallas lost in double overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round to the St. Louis Blues, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Nill set about remaking their roster and signed veteran forwards Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski, and defenseman Andrej Sekera on July 1.

Pavelski played his first 13 seasons with the San Jose Sharks, including the past four as captain, helping them advance to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 and reach the Western Conference Final last season. Perry won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 and has 89 points (36 goals, 53 assists) in 118 playoff games.

"Any time you can add a player of the pedigree of a Corey Perry or a Joe Pavelski, a Sekera -- they have been around the game a long time -- it just helps your room," Nill said Saturday while watching Dallas play the New York Rangers at the 2019 Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament.

Video: 31 in 31: Dallas Stars 2019-20 preview

The Stars were able to find success in their first year under coach Jim Montgomery, finishing 43-32-7 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in three seasons before eliminating the Nashville Predators, who won the Central Division, in the first round.

Now with their new additions, they'll be looking to take the next step.

"We knew we had to get better, and the rest of the League is getting better," Nill said. "Our biggest thing is making the playoffs, and to do that, we have to get out of [the Central] Division. We knew we had to get better and fortunately, we are able to get some key pieces and now we will see how it works out."

In a wide-ranging interview with, Nill discussed signing Perry, the growth of defenseman Miro Heiskanen, and the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament:


The one thing that you can say about the two forwards the Stars acquired in free agency is that they are prototypical Western Conference power forwards. Was that important to you? 

"I think the first thing is you have to try to get into the playoffs, so you have to have enough skill on a nightly basis to try to win. It's not only skill, it's goaltending and everything else, and I think we have all of that. Then, to have success to survive in the playoffs, you do have to have some size and weight to your team. We think we have a good mix on our team. We think we have good skill and we have good goaltending, so any time you can add a little bit of size to get out of the West, you are going to have that. It's a grind to get out of the playoffs, so you have to have size and strength."


Obviously, there is some concern about Perry, who was bought out by the Ducks and struggled last season with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 31 regular season games. What convinced you he was the right fit for the Stars?

"I've seen him for all these years and I know what his credentials are. He had a knee injury, ACL total reconstruction. Just from a historical perspective of how those things are, it takes a year to bounce back. We think he is going to have a better year. We like what he brings. He brings a presence. He's a net-front guy, involved in the action all the time. I think he is going to bring a little fire to our lineup with the way he plays."

Video: Perry discusses knee injury, being ready for 2019-20


Defenseman Miro Heiskanen is emerging as one of the brightest young players in the League. What are your feelings about him?

"He just turned 20 (on July 18), so he has more growth in him. Some guys are gifted. He's gifted, and it's not just on the ice, it's off the ice. He's a very mature kid, very relaxed. Great hockey sense. He has the capability to skate and he has a great stick and a head. He's got a high ceiling."

Video: Miro Heiskanen comes in at No. 17 on the list


How much does having a defenseman like John Klingberg help Heiskanen with his maturation process on and off the ice?

"Similar players. I think they help each other with the way they see the ice. When they play together, they are a pretty dynamic duo. They give a coach an option when you are down one or two goals. You can put them out there and they can get after it." 


Heiskanen is just one of several young defensemen that are having a huge impact in the NHL right now. In the past, it was believed that you had to wait the longest for defensemen to develop because it was the hardest position to learn. Why do you think that is changing?  

"I think their skill level is so good, but I think they have ice in their veins, these kids. They have been on the world stage, some of these kids, since they were 15, 16, 17 years old. They are not intimidated by the League anymore. They are skilled enough that they can come in and make a difference. They have played against high-end players all around the world, so they are comfortable playing in all these situations."


Speaking of young players, have you been impressed with any of your players here at this tournament?

"I thought [defenseman] Ben Gleason has played well for us. He's a guy that we brought here on a tryout last year and he played for us in Texas (American Hockey League). [Center] Ty Dellandra has been outstanding, (he) plays the game hard. Really, I like our whole team. They are playing the way they should be playing and playing to who they are. I think that is important."


You were with the Detroit Red Wings when this tournament was introduced more than two decades ago (1998). How important of a tool is it for the players and for the teams?

"It gets the players ready for camp. For each team, it gives us a chance to look at our kids in a setting where they aren't playing against guys that are 30 years old, they aren't playing against full-time NHLers yet. We get a good gauge of who they are and how they play, and it gives the players a good head start coming into training camp."


Can you believe how much this tournament has grown in reputation and importance since it started?

"It's been 21 years. That's why [then Red Wings general manager Ken Holland] sat down, why I sat down, and said, 'How can we change things?' It was hard to evaluate a young kid when he had to go on the ice with Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and guys like that. We said, 'Is there a better way?' And we started doing this and tinkering around, and now it has become this and it's a great event."

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