When Jim Nill took over as general manager of the Dallas Stars he said there’s no big mystery about the key to the long term success of a team in today’s NHL.
“The biggest part of this game is drafting and developing, and we are going to be one of the best at it,” Nill said as he took the helm of the Stars back in April.
Now, two months later, he’ll get to put those words into action. The Stars will hold the first draft of the Nill era this weekend, and it has the potential to be productive one.
The Stars have nine picks in Sunday’s draft in New Jersey— including four over the first two rounds – in what many believe is the deepest drafts in a decade.
“This is a very strong talent pool,” said Nill. “This draft reminds me a lot of the  draft with [Ryan] Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Mike Richards and all those guys. That was a strong draft. In the end, there’s going to be some guys picked in the second round that are as good as a lot of guys picked in the first.”
The Stars have two picks in the first round. They own the 10th overall pick and picked up the 29th overall, which they acquired from Boston in the Jaromir Jagr trade. They have two in the second round as well, including the 40th and the 54th, which they acquired from Vancouver in the Derek Roy trade. They also have one pick in the third, one in the fourth, two in the fifth and one in the seventh.
“That’s a lot of picks for us and history will tell you that the more picks you have the better chance you have at getting players,” said Stars assistant GM Les Jackson, who has helped run the Stars’ draft for most of the past couple decades. “The staff is excited. It’s their day; it’s their Stanley Cup day. It’s their chance to put all their work on the line. All the guys are pumped. We have guys to pick and we’ve got a lot of picks. That’s a nice mix.”
There will be a lot of attention on what the Stars do with that first pick in the first round, but Jackson believes the Stars can find good prospects beyond just the first round. The Stars have had success in later rounds recently. They grabbed Jamie Benn in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. Two of their current top prospects – right wings Alex Chiasson (2009) and Brett Ritchie (2011)– were second round picks.
“It’s hard to determine the upside of some of these kids when they are so young. The hockey globe is big. The teams that do a good job of evaluating and working in their areas do well through the seven rounds,” said Jackson. “There’s definitely a lot of examples of players being there. Sometimes there is such an emphasis put on the first pick and everybody keys your success on that, but there are a lot of successes beyond the first round pick.”
Chances are slim that a player taken in this year’s draft will play for the Stars in 2013-14, so the draft really isn’t about trying to fill holes on the current roster. But the Stars do have some organizational needs and they could be looking to fill those.
“It’s no secret we need some help down the middle and we need some help in the back end. So, those are probably the positions we’re looking at,” said Nill. “Now, if a player comes along that is just so good at some other position, we’ll also look at that.”
That’s called taking the best player available. And the thinking behind that philosophy is a team’s needs can change significantly by the time a player taken in the draft is ready to play in the NHL. That can take three, four or five years in some cases.
“There are always needs and we don’t always have enough picks to fit all the needs,” said Jackson. “Our goal is to look at who you think the best player is and if it happens to be a centerman or a defenseman, good for us. And hopefully we pick the right one. Needs today might be totally different than when these kids mature and are ready to be pros, so I think it’s better to get the best player available at that pick.”
Jackson, Nill and the Stars’ scouting staff have a list of players they like and a good idea of which ones will be available when they pick. There are the questions about whether they should move up, move back or stay put.
“We’re very comfortable where we are sitting in the draft, we know where we are. We have a good feel,” said Nill. “The biggest part of the draft – and this is the part that I love – is knowing where players are going and who is taking them. It’s the managing of the draft. That’s the exciting part for me. He (Jackson) has a good feel for that and so do I. We’ve started putting that together. We know this group of players is going to be there for us and this group of players are gone, so let’s not focus on that too much. What’s the next group and should we jump into that group? That’s the best part of it.”
Nill said he has had talks about moving up, but the price has been too high to date. And that’s always one consideration when a team contemplates moving around in the draft.
“If you move up, what’s the cost and if you move back you have to protect yourself and still be in a position to select a good player, and what are the additional assets you get back,” said Jackson. “This year it might be good because it’s a deep draft. Maybe more picks will be better.”
This will be Nill’s first draft as GM of the Stars, but he’s an old pro when it comes to this side of the business. He ran the draft for the Detroit Red Wings over the past 15 years and brings a lot of experience and some fresh ideas to the Stars’ draft table.
“You look at his history; he’s been in the field. When you add somebody with that experience and that amount of success, it’s good for us,” said Jackson. “All the people you’ve worked with over the years you’ve learned something from them and they sometimes learn something from us. It’s a nice mix. He’s confident in what he does, and he has total respect for all the guys in the evaluation field. I’m excited that he’s here. When you add a guy of that value, how can you not be better?”
And with a lot of picks in this year’s draft, the Stars have a great opportunity to improve the team’s prospect pool. And for guys like Nill, Jackson and the Stars’ scouting staff, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“It should be a fun day for us,” said Jackson