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Nill not tipping his hand as free agency set to open

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

With free agent season opening Friday, Stars GM Jim Nill says he is comfortable with where his team sits right now. How comfortable? Well, he used the word comfortable six times in less than four minutes while talking to media at the NHL Draft this past weekend in Buffalo.

But at the same time, as he usually does, Nill didn’t close the door on making moves this summer as he puts together his roster for the 2016-17 season.

“I am comfortable where we are, but I am going to sit and watch the market,” Nill said. “We do have cap room, which is an important thing to have in this game. If there is something there that makes sense to us, we’ll react to it. We’ve made a lot of moves in the past two, three years. I am excited about our young players coming in. We are in a good position. We can add, but we can start the way we are also.”

While Nill is ready to turn to young players in key roles, the Stars roster isn’t exactly filled out, so there is an opportunity for him to make some additions. Teams can’t sign unrestricted free agents until Friday, but teams have been allowed to talk to them since the weekend.

“I’ve talked to guys,” Nill said. “I have a couple open roster spots, but I am not going to do anything crazy.”

And Nill spent time talking to other general managers at the draft. So, you can’t rule out a trade with Nill, who has made some big ones in the offseason the past three years.

Still, it’s clear the Stars will add some youth into the lineup this season. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Dallas blue line, where the Stars will have a different look this season.

Three veterans from 2015-16 are moving on. Nill traded the negotiating rights of pending unrestricted free agent Alex Goligoski to Arizona, and the Coyotes signed Goligoski to a multi-year deal. Jason Demers and Kris Russell – two other UFAs – will hit the free agent market on Friday. Nill did sign Jordie Benn – another UFA – to a three-year deal, and that pushed the Stars to seven likely defensemen for the upcoming season: John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, Stephen Johns, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Benn and highly touted prospect Esa Lindell, who is expected to make the jump to the NHL this season.

It’s a young defense with five of the seven – Klingberg, Johns, Nemeth, Oleksiak, and Lindell – 24-years-old or younger. Nill hasn’t ruled out adding another veteran to the mix, but he’s said repeatedly he is not afraid of rolling with youth.

“I am comfortable with where we are with the young kids. If we can add a veteran, that’s great, but I am not going to go chasing anybody long-term or crazy money,” Nill said. “It’s time for some of these young kids. It’s just them getting the experience now. We eventually have to turn it over to them. They bring us size, they bring us more speed, so we are excited about where our team is.”

There’s been no change in goaltending. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi still are the guys in net. There has been buzz that the Stars could look to make a trade on the goalie front, and Nill addressed that on the draft floor over the weekend. Again, he’s fine with the current situation but not ruling out anything.

“No, we’re sitting good,” Nill said. “We are comfortable with where we are. Everybody on this floor is trying to get better every day and if there is something that makes sense we’ll do it, but we are comfortable starting where we are at, also.”

There will be change among the forwards. The Stars have four unrestricted free agent forwards – Patrick Eaves, Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sceviour, and Travis Moen – and all are expected to hit the market Friday. While the door isn’t closed on all of them, there’s a good chance all move on, opening the door for more youth. Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie both have logged NHL time the past two seasons and would seem to be at the top of the list to land roster spots in 2016-17. That would put the Stars with 12 likely forwards at this point, leaving a spot or two up front. Spots Nill could fill starting on Friday.

So, over the next few days we’ll find out what Nill has in mind. He has set the expectations bar high with his moves the past three summers. In 2013, just a few months into the GM job with the Stars, he cut the blockbuster trade with Boston to bring Tyler Seguin to Dallas. One year later, he traded for center Jason Spezza and signed forward Ales Hemsky in free agency. And last year, it was the trade with Chicago for forward Patrick Sharp and defenseman Stephen Johns, and picking up defenseman Johnny Oduya in free agency.

And as in years past, Nill isn’t tipping his hand. He’s not desperate to make a move, and not exactly ruling out anything either.

“I am going to sit back and listen and see what’s out there,” Nill said. “If there is something that is a fit for us, great. But if not, I am comfortable with where we are with our team right now.”

In other words, stay tuned.

Free agency opens Friday, July 1 at 11:00 a.m. (Central Time).

Dallas key restricted free agents: Forward Valeri Nichushkin, defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. The Stars tendered qualifying offers to both Nichushkin and Oleksiak, retaining the negotiating rights to both players.

The one minor league RFA is forward Matej Stransky. Goaltender Maxime Lagace, who had been a pending RFA, signed a one-year deal on Thursday.

Dallas key unrestricted free agents: Defensemen Jason Demers and Kris Russell and forwards Patrick Eaves, Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sceviour and Travis Moen. These players will hit the market July 1 and are free to sign with any other team.

Minor league UFAs are forwards Emil Molin and Taylor Peters and defenseman Troy Vance. All three were restricted free agents not tendered qualifying offers, thus making them unrestricted free agents.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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