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Nill wading through busy offseason 'one step at a time'

From draft preparations to free agency, summertime is quite a juggling act for the Stars general manager

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Jim Nill is always juggling something.

Some days, the Stars general manager is simply working with tennis balls or oranges. Other days, it's chainsaws and watermelons.

But there is always juggling.

Nill spent last week with his amateur scouts in Buffalo interviewing prospective draftees at the annual NHL Scouting Combine. This week, he will host the pro scouts in Frisco to get their take on players inside the organization and out.

He has signed two European free agents in defenseman Emil Djuse, 25, and forward Joel Kiviranta, 23. He has made the decision to relinquish control of Brett Davis, Liam Hawel, Jermaine Loewen and Markus Ruusu by not offering contracts by June 1.

All of it is done with much thought and reason. All of it has to fit into the big picture of running a hockey team.

"What you're trying to do is work within the big picture, but also understand that things are going to change," Nill said. "The summertime is when you make a lot of big decisions, and you try to come up with the structure of what you want your team to be. But you know that by the end of next season, a lot can change, and you have to be ready for that, too."

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

Last season, the Stars entered training camp with the belief that their defense could consistent of John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns, Miro Heiskanen, Marc Methot, Julius Honka and Roman Polak. Injuries took away both Methot and Johns, and that forced moves that brought in Taylor Fedun, Jamie Oleksiak and Ben Lovejoy at a cost of a seventh, a fourth and a third-round draft pick. The moves helped the Stars make the playoffs and advance to the second round. And that's a lesson in both preparation and costs.

"In a perfect world, we don't lose Johns or Methot or (Martin) Hanzal, but you have to know that things like that can happen, and you have to react," Nill said.

As a result, the Stars will not have a second, third or seventh-round pick in the upcoming entry draft in Vancouver. Still, the team did all of its due diligence at the Scouting Combine as if it had all of its picks.

"We are always interested in acquiring extra picks, so you never know what can happen, and you want to be prepared," Nill said. "It's just a matter of go do your job and get all the information you can, and then we'll see what happens."

In interviewing players who will be drafted in Vancouver, the Stars are opening files that could last for a while. A trade could come on draft day that opens up a pick, or there could be a trade for a player down the line where having the draft interviews on file is important.

Either way, the opportunity is there to help the organization, so you put the work in.

There is a similar mindset to acquiring players outside the organization.

 

[BUSY SUMMER AHEAD: Dates, key events on Stars' offseason schedule]

 

Djuse is a skilled left-handed defenseman who tallied 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 50 games with Skelleftea in Sweden last season. Kiviranta is a hard-working forward who had 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists) in 48 games with Vaasan Sport in Finland. Each could earn $925,000 in the NHL or $70,000 in the AHL, and each likely is looking forward to getting a chance to play in the NHL.

The Stars in the past have offered the same opportunity to free agents like Joel L'Esperance, 23, and Ben Gleason, 21, and hope to do the same with Tye Felhaber, 20, this season.

"I think you are always looking to add talent every way you can, and by signing players like this, I think you add talent that is close to ready for the NHL," Nill said. "We saw that last season with L'Esperance, and we hope to see it again this season."

And while it doesn't completely make up for the loss of draft picks, it makes those decisions more palatable.

"You don't want to wake up one day and find the cupboard is bare," Nill said.

But there are costs to all of this juggling. The Stars did not sign Hawel (fourth-round pick in 2017), Davis (sixth-round pick in 2017) or Loewen (seventh-round pick in 2018), so they lose control of those players. Hawel was coming off of his fifth season in the OHL, where he had 78 points (37 goals, 41 assists) in 66 games with Guelph.

Because NHL teams have a limit of 50 contracts and because every player brought on will cost some amount of money, the team has to make tough choices.

Video: Inside look at Game 7, end of Stars' 2018-19 season

"That's just part of the business," Nill said.

Also part of the business is patience.

With all of these scouting meetings going on, the schedule for contract negotiations takes a bit of a backseat. The Stars already signed Esa Lindell to a six-year contract extension, but they have remaining restricted free agents in Jason Dickinson, Mattias Janmark, Brett Ritchie and Julius Honka. Qualifying offers must be made by June 23 to retain the rights of these players. Otherwise, they can become unrestricted free agents.

The Stars also have sole negotiating rights on their unrestricted free agents until July 1. Nill has already told Jason Spezza and Methot they will not be re-signed, but he is open to negotiations with Mats Zuccarello, Roman Polak, Ben Lovejoy and Taylor Fedun. Players can interview with other teams starting June 25, but can't sign with another team before July 1. They can re-sign with the Stars at any time.

Nill said his team is juggling those negotiations, the recent meetings with scouts, and the preparation for the draft (June 21 and 22).

Right now, it's more like your typical act with the oranges and not yet anything approaching chainsaws.

"You just take things one step at a time," Nill said.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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