Thursday, June 22, 2023 Jun 22, 2023
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The Stars’ Road Forward Winds Through the Trade Market

The money isn't there to make a splash in free agency. The inventory probably isn't, either. What does past precedent tell us to expect from Jim Nill's dealings on the open market?
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Jim Nill doesn't have a reputation as the league's most active general manager, but that doesn't mean he's above a splash trade. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports.

Perhaps the Stars should thank the Golden Knights and Panthers. If it weren’t for the blockbuster trades that brought those franchises Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk, respectively, the NHL’s milquetoast appetite for a bold offseason might not exist. We’ve already seen a few chips fall with Columbus picking up Ivan Provorov in a three-team trade. Could Dallas be the next mover? And does general manager Jim Nill have it in him to make that kind of move?

It depends on Nill not only being a willing dealer, but also in terms of his assessment of his roster. Given his past behavior, there are no templates for what a big trade might look like. Nill had been on the job less than three months in 2013 when he swung the Tyler Seguin trade, a blockbuster seven-player swap. But that was less about trying to make the Stars a contender and more about pulling them out of mediocrity to punctuate what at the time was a flashy new image. Adding Jason Spezza the year after showed a willingness to part with futures—just not futures of any significance. The closest Dallas ever got to being a real contender was in 2016, and all Nill did that season was add Kris Russell at the deadline. So even if change is exactly what the blueline needs, on the surface, we don’t have a lot to go on when it comes to expecting change.  

In fact, Nill seemed almost cagey when asked about the defense at the year-end scrum, rattling off a bunch of superficial team stats in response. I call them superficial not because they weren’t valid or true, but because Nill was being diplomatic. Just because he didn’t throw his blueline under the bus doesn’t mean he and his colleagues aren’t in the war room right now finding out ways to make it better.

Still, if there’s no template for a big trade, and Nill is out here issuing a broad stamp of approval for the current group, why should fans expect anything except the status quo going into next year?

Because a couple of maneuvers could foretell what Nill has in store, and a critical context through which to view those maneuvers. The first was Nill’s trade for Nils Lundkvist last offseason. The second was Dallas’ failed bid for John Tavares in 2018. Taken together, they reveal a GM willing to learn new tricks and who’s always on the hunt, no matter the size of the fish. 

The context is equally important. Whatever potential trade Nill makes, he will have created the perfect window for it. Next year, Thomas Harley will be the only player due for a significant pay adjustment once he reaches free agency. And it just so happens that will come when Joe Pavelski, Jani Hakanpaa, and Colin Miller come off the books. The year after it’ll be Wyatt Johnston’s turn for a new, sizable contract … just as the salaries of Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell, and Ryan Suter expire. In other words, whatever the Stars can fit into their current cap, they’ll be able to fit for a long time.

So why not take a swing now for a player like, say, San Jose’s Erik Karlsson? The Stars were the frontrunner for Karlsson in 2018, so there’s plenty of history. Such a move would be way more difficult in terms of dollars. Karlsson has four more years on a contract at $11.5 million in annual cap, and while insiders say the Sharks want to get a trade done, and they’re willing to eat a portion of his contract that could bring his AAV down to at least $9 million a year, it won’t be easy. As Sharks beat writer Sheng Peng notes, retaining cap on a contract for more than three years would be the first of its kind in the cap era. However, all would-be suitors are up against the cap, so Sharks GM Mike Grier will be cornered regardless. At minimum, San Jose would need to take back a medium-sized contract, like Radek Faksa’s, to make it work for Dallas. Is this the move? Bringing in a super-charged version of John Klingberg?

Karlsson is coming off a career year (101 points) that will most likely earn him the Norris Trophy. However, this wasn’t just the case of a player shooting hot. If you saw him this year, you’d know. Beyond being rejuvenated, he was an altered beast of speed breaking out of the zone. Per Evolving-Hockey, his performance was good enough for six extra points in the standings—the same number as Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz. Karlsson’s presence might run counter to the Vegas “model” of having a big, burly blueline, but rosters have different strengths and weaknesses.  

And, as I’ve argued, the lack of clean breakouts is what killed Dallas against Vegas and to a lesser extent, Seattle. The Stars’ second pair was brutalized in the playoffs and couldn’t get out of the defensive zone to save their life. They also couldn’t capitalize on chances in the offensive zone. As a group, Dallas’ defensemen averaged 1.15 points per game; only four playoff teams (Winnipeg, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey) were worse. Karlsson offers everything Dallas needs: someone to anchor a defensive pair who can power through the muck and grind of the opposing forechecks that defined the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and most likely will define them in the future.  

Of course, I’m sure some fans don’t believe Nill has it in him to do something bold. And he does trend toward the patient end of the spectrum. Craig Custance at The Athletic broke down those tendencies in 2018, when he examined the moves of 27 NHL general managers to assess patterns in their transactions. Nill ranked 21st in terms of activity, and his 0.40 trade per month was well below the average of 0.54. But tendency and temperament are not the same, and right now, Dallas has one of its deepest rosters ever. While losing Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi will hurt, Johnston and Ty Dellandrea will only get better. Logan Stankoven is primed to strengthen the forward group, and you never know if seeing Vegas throw out the one-two punch of Eichel followed by Mark Stone might inspire Pete DeBoer to experiment with Robertson followed by Roope Hintz.          

Nill can be as frustrating as he is calculating. But I don’t buy the perception he is some hyper-loyal happy meal of hockey management. That’s not to say I believe Nill is secretly ruthless, nor that I think his affability is anything less than genuine. However, this is a man who called the infamous horses**t rant “dead-on” in its core message. He has been willing to get his hands dirty. When he was younger, he was willing to get them bloody too.    

You know the old quote, about people showing you who they are and believing them the first time. When Nill began his tenure in Dallas, he shook the hockey world with a blockbuster trade. With his watch nearing its end—his contract ends in 2024, whereupon he’s widely expected to make way for a successor at general manager—it would be fitting for him to exit the same way he entered: with a bang. Whether that’s now or at the deadline, don’t be surprised if Nill’s slow burn turns into an extended run after making an audacious move. That’s how it started. Why wouldn’t it be how it ends?      


David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…

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