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Five Questions: GM Nill preaches patience with Stars

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill:

Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill comes from the Detroit Red Wings' school of team-building, so patience in development is basically in his DNA. No team waits on prospects quite the way the Red Wings do, and it typically works out for them.

Nill, who worked alongside Detroit general manager Ken Holland for 19 years, has needed every bit of his patience this season because after overachieving to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the Stars have struggled, particularly in their own end.

Dallas (11-13-5) is sixth in the Central Division with 27 points and last in the NHL in goals-against per game (3.52).

"We were fortunate to make some moves last season that probably put us ahead of what anybody really thought, and now it all has to come together," Nill told NHL.com. "That's what takes time. Other than [Jason] Spezza and a few others, it's a very young core, and that's why we have to be very patient, let it come together. It's easy to say, 'Well, it's not coming together, we need to make another change,' but you've gotta let things gel on their own a little bit too."

Nill has made two trades this season. He acquired defenseman Jason Demers from the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Brenden Dillon. He also acquired veteran forward Travis Moen from the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Sergei Gonchar.

Nill said the point of the Dillon-Demers trade was to address the Stars need for a right-handed, puck-moving defenseman. Demers fits the bill.

Dillon, a big and mobile defenseman, was a movable asset for Nill because the GM feels the Stars have at least three other defensemen just like him in Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka.

"Brenden and these other three guys, all same types of players," Nill said. "We had to start looking after this righty-lefty situation."

The trade actually fits perfectly into Nill's bigger plan of building the Stars into a consistent winner filled with depth and experience all over the ice. It appeared they were on the fast track to having all of that last season, but the results this season have shown otherwise.

"I think we were probably not as good as everybody had us, and we're not as bad as we are right now," Nill said. "We're somewhere in between, and a lot of it is a maturing process."

Nill talked in depth about his patience in development in a Q&A with NHL.com.

Here are Five (plus a bonus) Questions with…Jim Nill:

Even though you had success last season in getting to the playoffs, is this group you have still learning how to play the up-tempo style while also staying reliable defensively?

"Yeah. It's a challenge. We were a pretty good offensive team to start with, and then we added Spezza and [Ales] Hemsky, and there was almost this perception out there media-wise, and it filtered into our team, that we could score at will. I mean, we can score, but you can't give up the defensive end of the game either. It's finding that fine line of, 'OK, are we going to be run-and-gun and still make smart plays?' That's where we've got ourselves in trouble. We've gotta learn. You look at the good teams like Chicago, they can score but they know how to play a good two-way game with it. That's what we have to get to."

There also seemed to be a perception out there, in the media or otherwise, that because the Dallas Stars made the playoffs last season and went out and acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky this offseason that the team was poised to make a run this season. Was it too much, too soon for this group?

"We've got players who have to learn. There are certain things you have to learn how to do consistently, and we're going through that. We're young. We're very young on the back end. We've brought in four young guys, one of them is hurt now, Nemeth, but [John] Klingberg, Oleksiak and Jokipakka, the total up to today is probably 60 or 70 games total that they've played in the NHL. So we're young on the back end, and there are going to be some hiccups because of that. We've brought in some young guys up front. They've gotta go through it. You have to learn how to play a certain way in the League, and that's what we have to get to."

You talk about the defense, as you said a number of them have been thrown right into the fire so there will be growing pains, but have you seen the progress that you as the GM want to see, at least so far?

"We have. It's game by game and it's going to take time. Like with any younger players, there is going to be the odd game when you go, 'Oh, they just don't have it.' That even happens with older players; there are some games you don't have it. But overall I see growth in their game every game. They're starting to understand when to go and when not to go. Sometimes as a young defenseman instead of making the pass to the middle, you have to send it up the boards. Those type of plays, they've gotta learn it. We forget sometimes too that this is their first rodeo in the League. They don't even know the rinks, they don't know the players. That's a lot to absorb at once."

We talk about patience. Can you talk about the test of patience you're experiencing now?

"I think you've gotta stick with your game plan. We got off to a rough start and people are like, 'What's going on?' But that's where [coach] Lindy [Ruff] is very good. We have a good relationship. Our ownership and Jimmy Lites, our president, have been very good. We know what the game plan is. We know there is going to be some ups and downs and we just have to be patient with it. You know, it is tough because the media and the fans, everybody wants to win, and we do too, but there has gotta be a process that we have to go through.

"The other thing that has happened to us, and we don't use it as an excuse because it's not an excuse, but we've lost three players and they're all gone for the year. Rich Peverley is a big part of our team, so are Nemeth and [Valeri] Nichushkin. All three guys are big parts of our team. They were all regulars for us. We've had to fill in those holes. We've had to bring in different people, younger people, and it takes time for that to gel. So it's been a process, but that's part of the game and we're going to get through this and we're going to be better for it."

The interesting element to your team now is the cap situation. You've got Erik Cole and Shawn Horcoff coming off the books, if you choose to keep them off the books, after this season. There are others who could be gone as well, leaving a significant amount of salary-cap space with which to work, especially if the cap goes up. As important as this season is, can we look at this summer as the potential turning point for this organization?

"Well we have lots of flexibility going into the summer. We can go a lot of different directions. That's why we're watching the young players. As they develop are they ready to play bigger minutes? Cap-wise and payroll-wise we're going to have lots of space. It was part of the plan. We knew where we were going. We've got a lot of younger guys on entry-level contracts. We're losing a lot of big contracts that a lot were big cap contracts but not big salary contracts. Those are going to drop off, so we are going to have a lot of flexibility in regards to what direction we want to go next year."

BONUS QUESTION: Speaking of flexibility in the cap, do you view it that this team still needs a proverbial horse on the back end to carry you?

"We definitely do. We need a 25-minute-a-night guy that when you're ahead 2-1 with four minutes to go he's out there for three of those minutes. We need that type of player, one with a big heavy body. Probably other than 15 teams, everybody else needs that too, but that's what we're missing. Some of that is going to get taken care of internally as some of these guys develop, but we still need that veteran guy who can go out there and take control, settle things down when the game needs it, and finish off that last two minutes in the game."

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