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Nill's culture change transforms Stars into contender

by Adam Kimelman

Jim Nill waited nearly two decades before taking over a team. But once he arrived as general manager of the Dallas Stars, he wasted little time building them into a Stanley Cup contender.

Nill was hired April 29, 2013, and the Stars made the Stanley Cup Playoffs his first season, ending a five-season postseason drought. They entered play Friday with the most points in the Western Conference. Nill signed a five-year contract extension Friday that keeps him with the Stars through the 2022-23 season.

The day he was hired, Nill said, "We want to win here. We're going to change the culture a little bit."

That culture change has created a group of players that has grown into a juggernaut on the ice while developing close bonds off of it.

"I think it's obviously well-deserved," center Tyler Seguin said. "I think he's so involved with everyone, with everyone's family and everyone's wives. He's an ultimate guy and the ultimate GM so obviously happy he's going to be here for a while."

Nill began his top-to-bottom revamping of the Stars with the hiring of Lindy Ruff as coach on June 21, 2013. Then he went about rebuilding the roster.

Identifying depth down the middle as the Stars' biggest need, Nill fixed it with a blockbuster seven-player trade on July 4, 2013, that saw centers Seguin and Rich Peverley come to the Stars from the Boston Bruins in exchange for forward Loui Eriksson and three prospects.

Seguin, 21 at the time of the trade, had his maturity questioned during three seasons with the Bruins. But in three seasons with the Stars he's emerged as a top-flight center who is on pace for 45 goals this season after scoring 37 in each of the previous two seasons. Seguin's arrival also allowed Jamie Benn to move back to left wing. The result was Benn winning the Art Ross Trophy last season and entering the weekend second in points this season.

A heart condition brought a premature end to Peverley's career but he's moved into a key role in player development.

One year later, on July 1, 2014, Nill added depth behind Seguin by acquiring Spezza from the Ottawa Senators for forward Alex Chiasson and two prospects. Spezza has anchored a second line that has been productive enough to take pressure off Seguin and Benn on the top line.

Last summer Nill wanted to upgrade his goaltending in part to ease the workload on Kari Lehtonen, who was wearing down after back-to-back 65-game seasons. He acquired goalie Antti Niemi from the San Jose Sharks on June 27, 2015, and two days later signed him to a three-year contract.

With two No. 1 goalies this season, the Stars have cut their goals-against by more than half a goal per game, from 3.13 to 2.60.

While he was working on improving in goal, Nill made his annual bold-face July trade, acquiring versatile forward Patrick Sharp, along with defense prospect Stephen Johns, for defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt. Days later he signed free-agent defenseman Johnny Oduya, who was too expensive for the Blackhawks to re-sign.

With Oduya, emerging star John Klingberg, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers, the Stars have a smart, capable top four on defense. And bolstered by their talented forwards, the Stars lead the League in scoring at 3.40 goals per game.

But Nill's culture change wasn't limited to changing players in the locker room.

"He didn't want big TV sets," Stars president Jim Lites told USA Today. "He wanted a full kitchen so they could feed the players. He wanted the place to be more hospitable. He hires a chef full time. He wants to feed the players, and suddenly we have a great atmosphere in there. He wants them eating right and being together."

Nill also rebuilt the development and scouting departments. Texas of the American Hockey League won the Calder Cup in 2014, went back to the AHL playoffs last season and is in the running for a playoff spot this season. Nill hired Joe McDonnell as director of amateur scouting; the two had worked together closely with the Detroit Red Wings. The past three drafts have seen the Stars add a number of top prospects, among them forwards Valeri Nichushkin, Jason Dickinson, Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz, and defenseman Julius Honka.

The Stars are set for the present and their future looks bright. And Nill will have another few years to keep steering the ship, adding pieces when needed.

"In just over two years Jim has helped instill a culture of excellence within our organization," Stars owner Tom Gaglardi said. "From the day he stepped into this role he has displayed tremendous decision-making in the re-tooling of our group and we're excited to build upon the foundation that has been laid. We feel he is one of the best general managers in our League and we are thrilled he is so committed to us."


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