Published April 28, 2016
Jim Nill had a 10-year plan in mind for the Dallas Stars when he was hired as general manager. He wanted the team to be good for at least that long, not take that long to get good again.
But even Nill has been somewhat surprised by what the Stars have done in his third season, 17 years after their only Stanley Cup title and with no playoff series win since 2008.
With young All-Star players Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the second- and third-best scorers in the NHL, Dallas led the Western Conference for most of the season until a January stumble into this week's All-Star break. They are still second in the conference with the third-most points in the NHL (67 through 50 games).
"Really, realistically, we're probably a little bit ahead of where we thought we'd be," Nill said. "Now, on the flip side, we see how good we can be."
The Stars had two five-game winning streaks before Thanksgiving, and didn't lose consecutive games until this month when they went 3-6-2 with only 24 goals. The Chicago Blackhawks won 12 in a row to pass Dallas for first place in the Western Conference and the rugged Central Division.
"It's important to know that we had a bad month, but I think it's also important to know that we're a good team and we know how we play when we have success. We're in a good position," center Jason Spezza said. "The naturalists kind of split hairs a little bit. I think we've just got to take a deep breath and get back to the way we were playing at the start of the year."
After making the playoffs in 2013-14, the debut season for Nill and coach Lindy Ruff, the Stars never could overcome losing 10 of their first 14 games last season. They missed the playoffs despite winning their last four games and Benn leading the league in scoring.
They have a lot more wiggle room this season after their strong start.
"I think we can still be way better on a lot of things," said Benn, their 26-year-old captain. "Obviously, our record's better, and we're sitting in a better spot. Second half of last year we were pretty good, and first half of this year. So we need to get back to that and find that game that we had."
That goes back to scoring goals. The team still leads the league with 160, and its 3.2 per game trails only Washington (3.32 goals per game in 47 games).
The Stars are 3-10-3 when scoring two goals or less. They had eight such games in January, matching their combined total the first 39 games and three months of the season. They had 52 goals in 15 games in December.
"We're misfiring on some really good opportunities that we've got to be better at executing," Ruff said. "If I had to pick a time to struggle, I would struggle now versus having us struggle near the end of the year."
Nill earlier this month got a five-year contract extension through 2022-23, which would be his 10th season. After the previous 15 years as an assistant GM with a perennial playoff team in Detroit, Nill drastically reshaped the Dallas roster with a series of trades and acquisitions.
One of Nill's key early moves was a seven-player deal with Boston that first summer that brought in Seguin, whose 53 points this season trail only Chicago's Patrick Kane (73), and Benn (58). Seguin will turn 24 during All-Star weekend.
The Stars traded for Spezza in the 2014 offseason, then last summer acquired three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp while signing free agent defenseman Johnny Oduya and goaltender Antti Niemi. Nill said there are also eight or nine young players on their AHL team could who play in the NHL now.
There are 32 games left in the regular season, 13 before the NHL trading deadline Feb. 29. But the Stars might not be looking to make many changes.
"I like our team. We've got great depth. Unless we get a lot of injuries, I like where we're at," Nill said. "We're not going to sell the farm. We've got a lot of things in place."
"You've got to be careful. You start throwing away draft picks and trading young kids, and you're going to wake up in three years and be in trouble," he added. "This is a long-term plan."