Tyler Seguin accepted a hard, short pass in his skates, corralled the puck as he broke into the offensive zone and saucered it smack onto Jamie Benn’s blade. Benn cut hard through the crease, was launched Bobby Orr–style by goalie Reto Berra’s errant poke-check but still tucked it in backhanded while airborne. Neither Benn nor Seguin had received an invitation to try out for Team Canada’s eventual gold-medal-winning Olympic squad, and now the NHL’s most electrifying new duo was venting that frustration on the Calgary Flames.
With Seguin running middle ice and captain Benn shifted to the wing, the pair connected for a whopping 11 points in a 7–3 Stars shellacking, catapulting both into the top five in scoring. It was a mid-November night with not much else happening around the league, so it was clear for all to see: Jim Nill had pulled off the trade of the summer. And that making-the-trade-of-the-summer thing was about to become a habit.
In early September, as the GM of the Dallas Stars—the team on the most rapid and riveting of NHL rises—navigated his way to Traverse City, Mich., to watch rookie hopefuls at the NHL Prospect Tournament, he was in a mood to reflect on his younger self. Jim Nill was a journeyman-winger turned seasoned scout brimming with certainty, the eye who caught an off-the-radar Henrik Zetterberg at some no-name tournament in Finland and convinced his bosses to draft him as the drowsiest of seventh-round sleepers.
Nill counted Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Gustav Nyquist among the acquisitions he helped find during his 15-year, four-Cup tenure in Detroit. Nill had a right to be cocky but never was, and of all the wise decisions he’s made, perhaps the smartest was turning down the promotions he would have sworn he was ready for.
“Looking back now, we all think we’re ready to do something. We have that competitiveness, that inner drive. No matter what you do in life, you can never have enough experience,” says Nill. “If I had taken some jobs, it might’ve been a rough road.”
The road Nill’s been on since he arrived in Texas has been an express route paved slick by his dealing. After replacing Joe Nieuwendyk at the helm of a then-mediocre club, Nill won the biggest trades of his first two off-seasons.
In landing Seguin last summer and Jason Spezza this summer, Nill needed just over a year to secure two elite centres for a team previously bereft at the West’s most desired position. He scooped up Lindy Ruff, an experienced head coach. And he ended the longest playoff drought by a U.S. NHL team. Not a bad first 15 months on the job.
The future looks pretty bright, too. Benn is coming off a spectacular year in which he shone for the Canadian team he eventually played his way onto. Seguin, who left Boston under a cloud of gossip, has exploded in Dallas. Nill complemented new acquisition Spezza by signing underrated free-agent winger Ales Hemsky.
Suddenly, the Stars are the team in the West poised to spoil Cup parade plans. They dress a young core, have a Calder Cup–champion farm team and play an exciting brand of hockey. Texas sports fans uninspired by the Cowboys, Rangers and Mavs can walk into the rink believing the glory days of the late ’90s—the years of five consecutive 100-plus-point campaigns and the franchise’s only Stanley Cup—could be back.
If Dallas is to ascend the ladder to the status of Chicago, L.A., and Anaheim, it will be due to lessons Nill gleaned from nearly two decades working with the minds of Ken Holland, Jimmy Devellano and Scotty Bowman in Detroit, learning how to manage all the roles a GM has to play. The secret to success, in Nill’s view, is simple.
Step one: Hire good people.
Step two: Let them do their job.
Nill’s hired “good people,” and he trusts them in important roles—guys like Joe McDonnell, the Stars director of scouting, a friend and a talent he plucked from the Red Wings when McDonnell’s last contract expired. Nill knows how to read people, McDonnell says, how to make them feel included in his plans. And his moustache has seen more rinks than Lanny McDonald’s. When he supported Holland, Nill spent more time on the road scouting pros and amateurs than almost any assistant GM in the NHL. The wear on his odometer bore fruit in the Seguin deal.
After mere days on the job in Dallas, Nill reached out to Boston GM Peter Chiarelli during the Bruins’ run to the 2013 Stanley Cup final. Most of it was idle chat, but as the two stayed in touch, Seguin’s name popped up. Though affordable at a $5.75-million cap hit though 2018-19, the second-overall selection of the 2010 draft endured a sophomore slump with the B’s, and rumours of his party-happy ways spread through hockey circles.
“Eventually something will come along. You just gotta be prepared for it.” –Jim Nill
It was no secret Dallas needed to address its weakness at centre—the Stars were playing Benn, a natural winger, in the middle. The seasoned scout in Nill saw value.
“Tyler Seguin, he went to university with the Bruins,” Nill says. “I knew we were getting a player who had been taught to do things the right way. That’s the most important thing. He hit some bumps in the road in Boston, but he’s a young kid.”
The seeds of a seven-player blockbuster—a rare, true hockey trade—were planted. Chiarelli had done his homework, insisting that now-key Bruins Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson, a three-time 70-point scorer, come the other way. Nill weighed his options, but acquiring a No. 1 centre was paramount.
“To make a trade, you have to give up assets,” Nill says. “I’m not going to go embarrass another GM [with a low-ball offer]. You’re not going to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes.”
The Seguin deal proved a coup, and the 22-year-old has become the league’s fourth-best scorer since his move to the Stars. Careful to spread credit to Boston’s Claude Julien and the Plymouth Whalers’ Mike Vellucci, Seguin says he’s benefited immensely from the hours of one-on-one time invested in him by another Nill acquisition: Ruff.
“Lindy pushes me the most,” says Seguin. “He’s going to make me an even better player.”
What’s more, Seguin sees Nill’s acquisition of Spezza and Hemsky as a reward for the Stars’ leap into the playoffs last season, contesting a thrilling series with the highly favoured Ducks.
After snapping their playoff drought, the Stars pushed the Ducks to overtime of Game 6 in the first round. The team could’ve folded when they were down two games to none, but the young bunch showed resiliency by ripping off decisive wins in games three and four. Agitator extraordinaire Antoine Roussel went after Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who was playing with a broken jaw, and depth players Cody Eakin, Trevor Daley and Shawn Horcoff each scored at least five points in the series. This wasn’t a team just happy to be there.
Since then, the Stars have gotten younger and scarier, letting vets Stéphane Robidas and Ray Whitney walk, making room for prospects Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa and Jyrki Jokipakka to try to fight their way onto the roster.
“Ninety percent of our team hadn’t been to the playoffs before. It’s a huge thing to feel what a playoff win tastes like, what a playoff loss tastes like. The atmosphere. The arenas. The families. Everyone watching,” Seguin says. “The guys used that as fuel this summer.”
Nill’s own fuel was the sudden availability of high-end centremen. He reached out to UFA pivots during the courting period, but it was no secret the disgruntled trio of Ryan Kesler, Joe Thornton and Spezza were on the market. A big Cowboys fan, Spezza began to take notice of the Stars when Nill brought in Seguin.
“You see the job that Jim Nill’s doing and how the team is on the upswing,” he says. “It’s a fairly young team with a bit of a veteran presence.”
Nill, who began his post-playing days as a Senators scout, had acquired defenceman Sergei Gonchar from Ottawa GM Bryan Murray the year prior. With Spezza’s unhappiness public, Nill knew Murray was in a difficult spot, but the process took a long time because Murray had targeted 23-year-old winger-on-the-rise Alex Chiasson and was trying to get the most for his captain.
“They targeted the right players, and moving forward they’re going to have some good players,” Nill says. “Every day we come to work trying to get better. Now, something doesn’t happen every day. But as long as you stay at it, eventually something will come along. You just gotta be prepared for it.”
If anyone is prepared, it’s Nill. He spent two decades getting ready to step out from behind the scenes, to make real hockey trades in a stiff market and lead a Texas revolution.