It’s been a whirlwind of a week for the new Dallas Stars GM, Jim Nill. As rumors started to circulate about Joe Nieuwendyk’s departure and Nill’s name arose as a successor, the Stars had just dropped the puck on the final game of the season against Nill’s Detroit Red Wings. It was confirmed to StarsInsider.com that evening that it was in fact, Jim Nill who was the 6th general manager for the Stars since their move to Dallas in 1993.
Wasting no time, after being officially introduced to the hockey world last Monday, Jim hit the interview circuit all across the league and even on local media outlets that were busy trying to have every person available to cover the Dallas Cowboys draft. After meeting Jim this weekend, he would prefer that the behind-the-scenes actions he is starting to take to re-build the Dallas Stars remains out of focus right now.
In fact, quietly, he travelled down to Austin this past week to watch the Texas Stars in their playoff home opener against the Milwaukee Admirals.
“It’s been good for the kids to play and go through that [playoffs],” Jim said. When asked about which player had stood out the most, without hesitation, Mr. Nill replied, “Chiasson.”
“Alex has taken his game to another level. You can see the game is slower for him. The AHL is the biggest step a player will take. You go from playing with other 19-20 year olds to playing with and against men. These men…it’s their job. They have families to support and now, you have these bright-eyed kids coming in looking to take their jobs away.”
The biggest thing that Jim feels a player needs to develop during their years of moving up the ranks is strength. With strengthening, he says there are two parts, “Mother nature and work ethic.” Nill was quick to point out that Chiasson has it figured out. He also mentioned Jamie Oleksiak played well and Joe Morrow was strong and has made big strides, especially being one of the younger guys.
Jim Nill would know. He’s been evaluating young talent for one of the most successful teams for the last decade and a half. In fact, in his 15 years as Detroit’s assistant GM, the highest draft position held was 19th (which Jim immediately reeled off the draft pick taken). What surprised me the most was the fact that despite having 4 Stanley Cup championships in the 15 year time frame, Detroit only picked in the first round 8 times.
“The scouting and front office group has been together for 15 years,” said Nill when asked how the Red Wings built such a strong team with seemingly weak draft positions.
“We were together for that long for a reason; we knew the job and the expectations. When I talked to the scouts in the field, and they told me there was a player I had to see, I knew it wasn’t just another idea out of left field. They would mention this player’s hockey sense or skating or size and I would have a vision at what they were looking at. When you’re together for that long, your focus is on always doing the right thing.”
Doing the right thing is something that Jim uses as a foundation for not only his life but professionally as well. Much of his managerial style points back to his everyday life.
“I’m with my kids ever day, but I don’t know where they’ll end up. You give them the right foundation and just hope. You compare that to these kids that we bring over from Europe or Russia, and you just don’t ever know what’s going on in their lives.”
Scouting is part of the process. Jim mentioned the player development on several occasions as being a huge cog in the growing of a potential NHL superstar.
“Hockey is so unique because you draft these players at such a young age. Sometimes you can push them too hard and they or you, as an organization loses patience and the next thing you know, they’re on another team at 26 years old and you’re left thinking, ‘Hey, we used to have that player.’”
Naturally, this brought up the topic of Scott Glennie, the Stars highest draft pick in the last decade, whom some have said that his head just isn’t in it.
“Glennie is a great example of having to be patient,” said Jim. “We would have taken Scott right where he was taken as well. Dallas has done a great job of taking players in the spots where they were chosen.”
Jim talked about how vital it was to have the right staff in place, throughout the whole organization starting from coaches down to player development and trainers. He went on to talk about Dan Cleary being another example of being a high draft pick which didn’t originally pan out according to expectations. He bounced around to a couple of teams and by 23-24, he gets a call from Detroit.
“You bring him in for a tryout, slot him in the right place and you give him one more shot,” Nill said. “Then, they just get it, and now every team out there is looking for a Dan Cleary to have on their team.”
But why the Dallas Stars? Why now? It’s been well documented that no less than a handful of teams have called Jim over the last few years looking to bring his talents to their organizations. However, when Jim was announced last week at the Stars press conference, he said Dallas was where he wanted to go. Simply put, “This is it.”
“Ownership,” is how Mr. Nill answered when asked what exactly “it” is. “I have a good relationship with Tom [Gaglardi]. He’s given me full reign to do what I need to do. Ultimately, I still answer to him, as it’s his business, but with the right people in the front office in place and a farm team that is just 3 hours away, this was the perfect situation.”
“Continuity and stability are important in all aspects of life,” Jim said. “If you don’t have stability in work and family, it’s a train wreck. Life is hard enough when things are going right. The big thing we want is a franchise built on consistency. You’ll always have changes, but we have a plan where we aren’t just going to make the playoffs for one year then miss the next two or three.”
One model which the Stars may look to for success, outside of Detroit of course is Chicago. Jim Lites, Stars President and CEO has made no secret he thinks the Blackhawks are doing things the right way to have put themselves at the top of the West once again. Jim Nill points to the fact they’ve done the little things right, but could experience a bump in the road.
Jim spoke of the ‘Hawks just 10 years ago and how things were dismal for Chicago fans, but they drafted the likes of Toews and Seabrook and Patrick Kane and of course, they go on to win the Cup in 2010. But the CBA bit the Blackhawks and Nill believes they could ultimately lose some heavy hitters this coming off season once the salary cap decreases.
“The cap won’t be an issue,” Jim said in relationship to the Stars. “It’s a young team, so it’s not a concern. Tom is ready to commit the financials. When the young kids get better, they’ll command higher contracts, but when that time comes, Tom is ready. And the Stars have done a great job. There are no ‘garbage’ contracts to fight through. No one is signed to 10-12 years where we have to wonder how to move someone 2-4 years into a huge deal.”
Of course, I would be amiss if I didn’t ask about Eric Nystrom. The #SignNystrom campaign has been heavy throughout social media for several months, especially when Nystrom played on the top line with Jamie Benn and Jaromir Jagr. Nill did indicate there were preliminary talks between the Stars and Nystrom’s representatives prior to the personnel change and Jim will reach out to Eric’s people at the end of the season. He said Eric is someone the Stars definitely want to have come back and Eric seemed to have a similar sentiment as Nill was conducting year-end one-on-ones with the players.
I put Jim on the spot when I asked about the Alex Goligoski trade and if that was a move he would have made had he been in Nieuwendyk’s position.
“I can’t make a comment on that. You don’t know what teams are looking for at the time. You don’t really ever know all the aspects surrounding a deal,” Nill said.
“Neal is playing with the best in the world. Alex has played with what, 4-5 different guys on the blue line? If he was playing with [Nicklas] Lidstrom, things may look a little different.”
Jim said the NHL is the best hockey league in the world for a reason. The people who make these personnel decisions are smart and they know what they’re doing. There could be ownership, player or contractual issues that are under the surface that the media may not ever see.
“Every GM in this business would…if you ask them, would tell you they wish they had a mulligan they could use on at least one trade,” said Jim. “You try to narrow down the mistakes that you make and your learn from them. It’s all part of life.”
Hockey is a big part of Jim Nill’s life. It’s not his whole life, however, and that’s a good thing. The D/FW sports market has been saturated with people who are unable to prioritize life and work and that shows in their decision-making (cough-Dallas Cowboys-cough). Like Mr. Nill said, “if you don’t have stability in work and family, your life is a train wreck.” Being able to prioritize the important things in life will translate well into the job of a professional sports front office executive.
Jim’s bread-and-butter is fast approaching. June 30th, the NHL Entry Draft will take place in Newark, NJ and Jim is staying true to his philosophy of being patient. Dallas has 10 picks going into this year’s draft. Nill said his staff will sit down a week leading up to the draft and will start evaluating picks, needs and potential spots where players will fall.
Jim says for a team to truly make themselves contenders, they have to have 3-4 picks that all “hit” around the same time. Chicago had it with Toews, Seabrook and Kane. The Stars are starting to see Brenden Dillon, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrick Nemeth and Chiasson starting to find their own. With this upcoming draft and having 10 picks and the leverage to make several moves on draft day, Jim Nill is prepared and equipped to take the Stars not only back to the top, but to new heights.