Minutes before free-agency officially opened, the Stars won the Jason Spezza sweepstakes and acquired the two-time All-Star and career point-per-game player from the Ottawa Senators in a five-player trade. The Stars gave up just one guy off of their NHL roster, and landed a player that over half of the NHL had reportedly been interested in.
Last week Senators General Manager, Bryan Murray talked about what he had hoped to get back in a deal for Spezza. Murray said, “Jason’s an 80-to-90 point guy, and you don’t get that kind of return in any kind of trade in this league today.”
It turns out that if you're Jim Nill, you do. Twice in 12 months, actually.
Friday is the one-year anniversary of the seven-player swap with Boston that brought Tyler Seguin to Dallas. As if you needed any reminding, Seguin led the Stars and finished fourth in NHL scoring this past season with 84 points.
But Nill wasn't done with just the Spezza deal. Just over an hour later, he inked sought-after, free-agent winger Ales Hemsky – who just so happened to flourish playing alongside Spezza in Ottawa last year – to a 3-year deal. Shortly after that, the Stars addressed another need, signing 26-year old goaltender Anders Lindback to a one-year deal to back-up Kari Lehtonen.
In just about an hour and a half, the Stars had checked a few monumental items off of their summer to-do list.
On their own, those kinds of moves make headlines. But the real story and impact of the deals goes way beyond the simple acquisitions.
For the last half decade the Stars have had somewhat of an identity crisis. Following so many years of stability and success, the Stars experienced a shortage of both. A team that had only missed the playoffs twice in 14 years since moving to Dallas missed the postseason in five straight years. A team that only employed two full-time Head Coaches from 1996-2009 saw two coaches quickly come and go in a four-year span after that. A team that so recently had been the class of the Western Conference and was a preferred destination of top players in the league was mired in bankruptcy and uncertainty while prized assets went elsewhere. Those who remained with this team always knew – or at least strongly hoped – that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel one day. But no one knew when.
After the Stars completed the trade for Spezza and the signing of Hemsky, both players spoke to the media. Independently of each other they both talked about how Dallas was where they wanted to be. In Spezza’s case, he had a say with a partial no-trade clause. Hemsky called his own shots completely as a free-agent. When asked about why they wanted to go to Dallas they talked about playing with guys like Seguin and Jamie Benn. They talked about playing for a coach like Lindy Ruff. They talked about how they watched the Stars play last season – including into the playoffs – and felt that was a team on the rise, and one that they wanted to be a part of.
The arrivals of Spezza and Hemsky are notable because they provide depth to the Stars where they needed it most. But the reasons behind why they wanted to come to Dallas are just as notable, if not more. Dallas has once again become a desired destination for players in demand.
Another element of the roster additions that deserves to be point out is the swift nature in which Jim Nill has addressed issues since becoming the GM of the Stars. When he got to Dallas last offseason, he spoke of a need for centers. He immediately traded for two – one of them being Seguin. He also recognized that he would have a mostly inexperienced group of players, so he stockpiled a couple of veterans and an established Head Coach in Ruff to lead them. Nill talks about himself as a man who still at heart is a hockey scout. With surgeon-like precision, he diagnoses an issue and makes a plan to fix it.
So, after the new-look Stars snapped a five-year playoff drought and reintroduced a winning feeling back in Dallas, Nill the scout was back to work addressing his holes. The Stars succeeded last season without the emergence of a true, second line. Spezza and Hemsky immediately fill that void, and the Stars have gone from without, to premier, in that category overnight. Last year the Stars struggled badly on the power play. So Nill grabbed Spezza who had 9 PPG last year, and Hemsky, who has scored as many as 8 in a season earlier in his career. When looking at his blue line, Nill saw a full compliment of young defensemen either NHL-ready, or knocking on the door. However, what he didn’t have is right-handed defensemen. So he picked three right-hand shot defensemen in last week’s Draft – including first round pick Julius Honka, who just so happened to be regarded as one of the top power play blue liners of his Draft class. While Honka and the rest of the 2014 picks won’t see the NHL for at least a couple of years, the point remains that Nill is addressing and improving the roster at every turn. He’s doing it for the future as well as the present. And he also understands that sometimes, patience can be your best asset.
Case in point, last week everybody expected Spezza to be moved during or before the first round of the Draft. The Sens were in a tough position because the rest of the league knew they had to trade Spezza. The one piece of leverage for Ottawa was the number of teams that wanted him. After all, who wouldn’t want that guy on their roster? Ottawa’s best ability to make teams overpay was the fear that if they didn’t, someone else would. As the Draft approached, everyone was ready to hear that a deal had been struck with Ottawa and some lucky team. Only it never happened. In the days since, we have learned two valuable pieces of information regarding why he was not traded on Draft day. The first is that Ottawa stayed tough in their asking price. Nill and Murray spoke throughout the day, but could not reach an agreement. Nill was not prepared to spend more than he felt he should or needed to, despite knowing what a gigantic addition Spezza would be in Dallas. In short, he would not allow panic to supersede his evaluations.
The other thing that we have learned is that there was another trade on the table for Spezza. Some would argue it was a higher return for Ottawa, because it contained a valuable NHL player and a first round pick (The Stars pick in the trade was a second rounder). But that deal could not be made. Because the team that was offering that package for Spezza was on his no-trade list. It was not somewhere he wanted to play, like Dallas was. Now might be a good time to revisit our earlier point about Dallas once again becoming a preferred destination.
So, instead of either of those options happening, Nill and his staff calmly walked up to the podium at Wells Fargo Center and used their first round pick on a guy they expect to quarterback their power play in a few years. Four days later, Spezza was on his way to Dallas in a trade Nill was happy to make.
Jim Nill has been the general manager of the Stars for 14 months. In sports-time that’s as embryotic as it gets to have a far reaching impact. However, in that short span of time, he has added Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Valeri Nichushkin, and Ales Hemsky, in addition to others. Presumably, those are slated to be four of Dallas’ top-six forwards when the season starts in October. And a year ago, none of them were on this roster. He went from a shortage of centers to having an overflow with Seguin, Spezza, Cody Eakin, Vern Fiddler, and Shawn Horcoff penciled down the middle of his lineup.
Again, this all happened in 14 months. Wow.
As is the case with most things, there is plenty of credit to go around. Nill would be the first to admit that he has not done this alone. It begins with a dedicated owner in Tom Gaglardi who is committed to the success of this team and giving his staff the resources they need to ensure that success. It also comes from a trusted staff, as almost all of these decisions are made collectively.
Last season I got asked a lot when the stars "rebuild" could be considered a thing of the past. What Jim Nill learned so well in Detroit is that you can never stop improving and replenishing your roster. Every year you have to address your needs and find a way to get better. No matter how successful the prior season was. So, in that sense, the rebuild never ends.
But in terms of an “organizational rebuild," that could end. It would end when you had a committed owner, General Manager, and Coach, all of whom you expect to be here for a long time. It would end when players would pick you as their destination of choice, because they want to be a part of what you are doing and believe they can come here and win. It would end when you had tangible pieces in place to have a realistic expectation to win on an annual basis. And it would end when the rest of the NHL looked to you as a model of how to do things right. Like acquire two top-notch centers in back-to-back summers when "no one can trade for players like that in the league today."
I don't know what the exact date was when the Dallas Stars organizational rebuild officially ended. It was before Tuesday, although perhaps that will serve as one of the days that most people point to for reference. It doesn't really matter though. We can quibble over the details all we want, but the point remains. This organization went through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in an attempt to return itself to its proud history. And in just over a year on the job, Nill, Gaglardi, Ruff and the entire Stars front office have positioned themselves on the rails and ready to race through the NHL.
The Dallas Stars are back. And it looks like they're here to stay.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.