It was around February when general manager Jim Nill started to believe that the Dallas Stars had something special going for them.
By the Sochi Olympic break, the Stars had ownership of the No. 4 seed in the Central Division. The new coaching staff had expertly integrated a number of young prospects into the lineup. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were among the league’s top scorers. The Western Conference was the NHL’s Group of Death, but the Dallas Stars were surviving.
Then the playoffs arrived, and a first-round battle with the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars won two home games, gave the Ducks a scare and impressed Nill enough that he thought he had a case to make to ownership.
Of course, it helps that ownership had the same inkling that the general manager did.
“You go into something like this thinking you can change things and make a difference, but to see it happen is very satisfying. We have a long way to go, but we made some huge steps this year,” said owner Tom Gaglardi after the season.
Nill was optimistic the Stars were now open for business, acquiring salary without having to shed any to do so.
“So we went into the playoffs and I think we gave Anaheim everything they could handle. It could have gone either way and that’s the way the playoffs are but we knew then that we still had to make another step. And that’s when we sat down with our ownership and our management team and said we got to make that next step, it has to happen,” he recalled on Monday. “And as the summer went on and the spring went on, we realized that Jason may be available.”
The Jason Spezza trade is the most aggressive move under Nill’s stewardship. The Tyler Seguin trade was, at the very least, the acquisition of a former second overall pick that was signed through 2019. Spezza could end up a rental, despite the freight the Stars sent back to Ottawa for him.
Nill is confident that he won’t be just a rental.
“I’ve spoken to Jason’s agent, Rick Kern, and we’ve already talked. We’re going to let Jason get settled in here first. But we’ve already talked about it and kind of go from there. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. I just want him to get his family in here, get settled and then we’ll move forward from there,” he said.
Nill said the Spezza move puts the Stars in elite company in the NHL.
“If you look at the scoring race last year, we would have three of the top-30 scorers on our team if Jason was with us,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often other than with two or three teams in the League. Somebody mentioned about him kind of being kind of the second line. I really look at it, I think it’s a 1A and 1B. Jason Spezza is in the prime of his career. He’s an elite player.
“Having Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza out there as your two centermen coming out the door, when we go on the road, other teams are going to have a tough time matching up against us.”
The Dallas Stars were already a tough team to play against. Their success last season gave the green light to Nill to make them even tougher.