Asked about that letter recently, Lites chuckled a bit because of how much things have changed, how many things have changed. And for Lites, one change has been the catalyst for all the others.
“For me, the key difference between now and three months ago is Jim Nill,” Lites said.
The hiring of Nill as general manager just after last season ended was less about moving on from former GM Joe Nieuwendyk and more about the availability of Nill, Lites said. Nill, who had been assistant GM in Detroit for 15 years, was considered the top candidate for any GM opening around the league.
“If you get the one hire right, all the rest of it will work out,” said Lites. “Joe did a lot of good things, and this wasn’t to change Joe out, but it was the opportunity to hire Jim Nill.”
And Nill has delivered, pulling off a series of moves that have reshaped the Stars’ roster not just for the upcoming season, but the additions of young players like center Tyler Seguin and right wing Valeri Nichushkin should help the team for many years to come. The additions of defenseman Sergei Gonchar, center Shawn Horcoff and center Rich Peverley bring veteran presence to a lineup that includes other young players like Jamie Benn, Brenden Dillon, Cody Eakin and others.
“It’s amazing how much has changed,” said Stars owner Tom Gaglardi. “Three months ago we had a chart of our team with blank names and blanks with what we wanted to do, and all those have been filled now. We didn’t know the names 90 days ago, but these are the moves we talked about and (Nill) has come in and delivered it.”
Nill addressed the Stars’ biggest need, which was the center position, in one day. On July 4, he acquired Seguin and Peverley –both right-handed centers – along with defense prospect Ryan Button from Boston in exchange for forwards Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser and defenseman Joe Morrow.
Later that day he worked out a deal that would bring Horcoff to Dallas from Edmonton for defenseman Philip Larsen and a seventh round pick in 2016.
“We’ve solidified our center ice position and I think it matches up against anybody in the league,” said Nill.
A key part of improving the center position is that it allows Jamie Benn, who had been playing in the middle, to move back to the wing, his natural position.
“All of a sudden we went from being shallow in the center position to having real depth,” said Gaglardi. “That was a huge weakness of ours and I am really excited. It’s what we needed. We lost some good players though. We paid a price to get it done, but I really think our team has improved. To get a young guy like Tyler Seguin, it’s not very often that a franchise gets the opportunity to add a guy of that caliber.”
The trade for the 21-year-old Seguin, one of the top young players in the game, along with the addition of Nichushkin, the Stars’ first round pick (10th overall) in this summer’s NHL Draft, gives the organization two young players that should pay dividends for years. Seguin, who is expected to be the Stars’ No. 1 center, was the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft, has three years of NHL experience and one Stanley Cup to his credit. The gifted Nichushkin, a right wing who played in Russia’s KHL last season, was considered one of the top five players in this year’s draft.
“We got two players that are likely elite. Those guys are hard to find,” said Gaglardi. “We’ve got great prospects and great depth, but to add what Nichushkin could potentially be and we already know what Tyler Seguin is and what he can be having played three years in the league, that’s what is so exciting about it.”
The 31-year-old Peverley won a Stanley Cup in Boston, is an excellent faceoff guy and can play center or wing. Horcoff, 34, is the former captain of the Edmonton Oilers, brings veteran leadership and, although his numbers have dropped the past few seasons, there is belief he can still be a productive player given the opportunity.
“I think he is going to be a pleasant surprise for people. He’s a competitive player and he’s just what we need for our dressing room and on the ice,” Nill said. “Rich Peverley is a good player who plays all positions, very well-rounded player.”
Nill upgraded the team’s defense with the addition of Gonchar in early June. In his first move to make over the roster, Nill acquired the rights to Gonchar – a pending unrestricted free agent – from Ottawa for a sixth-round pick and then signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract.
“There was very little defense available in free agency and Gonchar was the best of the bunch, we thought,” said Lites. “And Jim, because of relationships he had, went right out and got him. He went right to the agent, who he knew really well and right to the player directly. He didn’t hesitate and mess around. We think we got the jump on that.”
Gonchar will provide some veteran guidance for the Stars’ younger players, a role he relished in Ottawa. He also will be key in helping Nichushkin adjust to the NHL and life in North America.
“We got lucky on some levels, too. We sign Gonchar and all of a sudden you draft Nichushkin and you realize they are from the same town,” said Gaglardi. “Gonchar was a key part of (Evgeni) Malkin’s development in Pittsburgh. All of a sudden you end up with a guy who has done it before, knows how to do it and is from the same town. There were some things that weren’t planned.”
Overall, it was a major makeover for the Stars. Sure, there was some luck involved. The right deals came along at the right time and that allowed the Stars from having to dip into a thin free agent market looking for solutions. The Stars’ only major free agent signing was veteran goaltender Dan Ellis, who signed a two-year, $1.8 million deal to back up Kari Lehtonen.
“We knew what our holes were, what our needs were and we had a game plan. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t know this was the way it would turn out,” said Nill. “You come to work every day trying to get better. But it’s tough. This is a very good league. We’re fortunate that at the right time, the right players became available.”
While the Stars gave up some quality prospects to make deals, the prospect pool remains impressive with players such as forwards Alex Chiasson and Brett Ritchie and defensemen Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Kevin Connauton knocking on the door at the NHL level.
“We’ve addressed the biggest weaknesses of our team and we’re ready to move forward,” said Gaglardi. “Meanwhile, we’ve still got a bunch of high-end prospects that will be working hard to make the big team, too. I feel really great about where we are.”
And Nill made another big move this summer, letting Glen Gulutzan go as head coach and bringing in Lindy Ruff, the long-time bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres.
“In my mind there is no substitute for experience. I’ve been really impressed with Lindy. I didn’t know him before. I’ve spent some time with him the last few weeks and what a treasure trove of know-how,” said Gaglardi. “I think he is going to make a difference. His teams played hard, his teams played well and they overachieved maybe more so than they did anything in Buffalo. He got a lot out of those teams. Aside from that, they were exciting teams to watch.”
While a lot has changed for the Stars in three months, Nill has been on the job a little more than two months and has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.
“Not afraid to make a decision. He is one of the most prepared people I have ever met in any industry,” said Gaglardi. “I am impressed, really impressed. He is as advertised and more.”
“Jim has more information than most people have because of his work ethic and his intelligence and his experience,” said Lites. “It’s easier when Jim is making the decision because we’ve gotten to the point where after just a few months we trust his judgment.”
And Gaglardi’s role can’t be overlooked in what the Stars have done this summer. He committed the financial resources for Nill to pull off the deals, which pushed the Stars into the top ten in the NHL as far as cap expenditures for 2013-14.
“Tom has made a huge commitment financially,” said Lites. “He’s there every day. If I am a Dallas Stars fan, I would be joyful because this guy is going to do what it takes to win. He wants to do it right.”
“We’re committed to winning,” said Gaglardi. “It’s simple. As I said when I came here, I didn’t do this for any other reason but to win. If we take care of business on the ice the rest of it will take care of itself. We’ve got to get better and we’ve got to win. I think what you see now is we are walking the talk. We are committed to winning.”