Dallas GM Jim Nill sees future in the Stars: 'There's a time for everything'

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Dallas GM Jim Nill sees future in the Stars: 'There's a time for everything'
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Look at the bold moves Jim Nill has made as the Dallas Stars’ general manager – Sergei Gonchar, Lindy Ruff, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky – and you see only part of the picture.

“I was close to making some moves last year,” Nill told Yahoo Sports recently, “and it was a good thing I didn’t.”

Trades?

“Yeah. Trades.”

What happened?

“Stayed patient,” Nill said. “Rode it out. There’s a time for everything. I’m glad I was patient with it.”

Nill wouldn’t reveal what he almost did, of course. He just laughed. But he said he might not have been so patient in the past, and he did share this: After the Stars snapped their five-year playoff drought and came oh-so-close to forcing Game 7 in their first-round series with the Anaheim Ducks, he sat with owner Tom Gaglardi and president Jim Lites. They talked hockey, as they often do, and said to themselves, “Oh, boy. Good thing we didn’t do that one.”

It’s not just what you do. It’s what you don’t do, too.

Nill has learned that lesson in his own life, and now he is applying it to the Stars. As much as they want to turn around this franchise fast, they want to build it to last. As well as they have done so far, the line is fine and the journey long. This is only Year 2 of the rebuild.

“The more you’re in the business, the more you realize humility is very important,” Nill said. “Stay humble. The minute you think you’ve got it, you don’t.”

* * * * *

Nill might be the most humble man in hockey – quiet, polite, approachable, unpretentious. Some of it comes from his nature. Some of it comes from his faith. Some of it comes from his experience.

Nill brought Shawn Horcoff and Tyler Seguin to Dallas in the summer of 2013. (Getty)
Nill brought Shawn Horcoff and Tyler Seguin to Dallas in the summer of 2013. (Getty)

The first time he was a candidate for an NHL GM job, it was 2000. He interviewed with the Calgary Flames, and he was excited. He was from Hanna, Alberta. He would be going home. He was one of three finalists.

He didn’t get the job.

“Looking back,” he said, “I wasn’t ready.”

He was qualified. He had played nine seasons in the NHL, and he had spent nine seasons in NHL front offices – three with the Ottawa Senators, six with the Detroit Red Wings. He had helped build two Stanley Cup teams.

But there is a difference between qualified and ready.

Nill spent 13 more years in Detroit. After the 2004-05 lockout, owner Mike Ilitch wanted to lock up Nill and GM Ken Holland. In exchange for a high salary for an assistant GM, Nill committed to staying with the Wings. At least half a dozen teams still called anyway – and more might have called if he were available – but he was content. His family had a stable situation. He got to work with the likes of Holland, Jimmy Devellano, Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock and Steve Yzerman. He helped build two more Cup teams.

“I think Jimmy Nill was ready a long time ago,” Holland said. “Jimmy probably could have left a lot sooner. We benefitted from that, but I also think he benefitted from more experiences, more experiences, more experiences. Not everything you do works, and when it doesn’t work, it’s also an opportunity to evaluate yourself and your decision – why something didn’t work the way you thought it should work.”

Nill led the Wings’ drafting and developing, helping unearth players like Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg. The Wings’ general philosophy with prospects was to over-ripen them – to keep them in Europe or the minors not until they could play in the NHL, but until they were ready to help the Wings win. That kind of philosophy can work for executives, too.

“You think you’re ready, and you’re not,” Nill said. “You think you know all the players, and you think you’ve got it figured out. The more you’re in the business, the more you realize the less you know.

“When you’re in it real early, you see players, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that guy’s going to play – bang, bang, bang.’ Well, the more you’re in it, the more of those bang-bang-bangs you see that don’t make it. Now that gets you thinking. When you go to make a decision, you’re like, ‘OK, I think that’s the guy, but I’ve also seen in my 15 years five guys that didn’t make it.’ It gives you a bigger scope.”

The last contract Nill signed with the Wings included an out clause. The Montreal Canadiens called in 2012, and Nill spoke over the phone twice with owner Geoff Molson. But he declined to pursue the job for personal reasons. It wasn’t the right time.

But when the Stars called in 2013, for the first time since he interviewed with the Flames 13 years before, he told Holland he was interested in moving on. His family was in a position where he could go. He knew Dallas could be a good hockey market, because he had seen it during the Wings-Stars battles of the late 1990s. He knew the president, because Lites used to work for the Wings. He liked that the minor-league affiliate was within driving distance, just as the Wings’ was. He felt ex-GM Joe Nieuwendyk had left a base of talent and assets.

He was also about to turn 55. He was more than ready.

“It was just time,” Nill said. “Even my wife, she was like, ‘We’ve got to go. It’s time.’ It was kind of like a calling.”

* * * * *

So Nill went to Dallas, and he acquired Gonchar, hired Ruff, acquired Seguin. Seguin finished fourth in the NHL in scoring last season. Linemate Jamie Benn finished 10th. The Stars made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Nill has a solid foundation in Dallas, and the flexibility to make more moves. (USA Today)
Nill has a solid foundation in Dallas, and the flexibility to make more moves. (USA Today)

But it wasn’t overnight success. The Stars started 5-6-2. They lost six straight in regulation and went through a 1-8-1 slide in January. They had to stay patient. They had to ride it out. This was still a young team, and this was just the beginning.

While Nill had to resist the temptation to make trades, Ruff had to resist the temptation to rant and rave. He was no rookie coach. He had spent 15 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, winning a Jack Adams Award, winning a Presidents’ Trophy, going to the Stanley Cup Final. But he had gone through his downs, too, and learned his own lessons.

“I was maybe too hard on some players,” Ruff said. “You know, mistakes happen in a game. I think we’ve got really good character here. I think we had good character in Buffalo, too, but I think I ran out of patience. I made some mistakes. This group here, I’m trying not to make those same mistakes.”

Nill acquired Spezza and signed Hemsky this summer. Seguin entered Tuesday night’s action leading the league with 13 points. Spezza is two behind, Benn three behind. Even though Hemsky has struggled, the Stars rank third in the NHL in goals per game at 3.50. These guys can skate and score.

But this is still a young team, and it’s still early in the season and the long-term process. The Stars are 4-2-2 entering a challenging part of their schedule. Their defense has been porous. Their goaltending has been spotty, especially from backup Anders Lindback, whose save percentage is .850. They’re tied for 28th in goals-against average at 3.50. These guys have to grow.

“Now it’s making that next step,” Nill said, “and it’s consistency.”

Ruff will continue to use young defensemen against the likes of the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, letting them play, living with mistakes. Nill will continue to watch and evaluate.

The Stars have a lot of young talent in the NHL as well as the AHL, where the Texas Stars won the Calder Cup last season. They can develop it or barter it. They’re tight against the salary cap now but will have ample room in the summer – and we know what Nill has done the past two summers. Say the Stars re-sign Spezza, whose cap hit is $7 million this season. The cap will likely rise significantly, and they can still shed Gonchar ($5 million), Erik Cole ($4.25 million), Shawn Horcoff ($5.25 million) and Rich Peverley ($3.25 million).

Just wait.

“The foundation’s there,” Nill said. “We’ve just got to be patient with it and make the moves at the right time.”

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