If you were to tell Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill at this time last year that his non-playoff team would rally in 2015-16 to become the best regular-season club in the Western Conference, his captain would be a Hart Trophy finalist, his head coach would be a Jack Adams Trophy finalist, and he would get to host a Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs even though Tyler Seguin would be injured for two months, surely he’d take it.
Then you should tell him not to actually watch that Game 7.
For all of the improvement yielded by Nill’s shrewd, bold trades — Seguin, Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, Kris Russell, Stephen Johns — the GM failed in his attempt to adhere to one of golden tenets of hockey team construction: Build from the net out.
In looking ahead to the 2016-17 Stars, we must start with the $10.4-million elephant in the crease: hockey’s most expensive goaltending from now through 2017-18, unless something gives.
Seems fitting that Kari Lehtonen ($5.9 million cap hit, with a no-trade clause) and Antti Niemi ($4.5 million) each let in three goals in that final Western semifinal game versus the St. Louis Blues. They’d been sharing the pain and glory all season. That was Nill’s unconventional plan from the outset, and it worked like a charm over 82 games.
It worked because the 32-year-old Finns didn’t bicker, but mostly it worked because the Stars’ league-best offence was a 265-goal juggernaut that lit the lamp 17 more times than the next most lethal team. Coach Lindy Ruff’s guidance of a top-four power play and top-10 penalty-killing scheme helped, too.
Neither Lehtonen nor Niemi — whom the San Jose Sharks didn’t even try to keep in teal — mustered a save percentage above .899 in these playoffs, and Ruff’s biggest decision often became, “Do I yank him now or after he lets in the next one?”
So, how does Nill mop up the blood spatter in the blue paint?
It’ll take great luck and/or convincing ownership to spend more money. A buyout is an easy but expensive and embarrassing way out. Maybe 1A or 1B can be traded in a salary-dump deal if packaged with an attractive forward prospect (say, an impeding RFA like Valeri Nichushkin or Brett Ritchie). You know the old saying: If David Clarkson can be traded…
Or the Stars could wait a year and hope to get lucky by having Las Vegas take Niemi off their hands in the expansion draft.
Even if the Stars can rid themselves of one of their solid backups, they’ll have to find a true No. 1. The unrestricted free agent pool is so thin, Sharks backup James Reimer is the big prize. Is 32-year-old Cam Ward an upgrade? Perhaps a slight one, but more likely a lateral move.
Dallas will face competition from Toronto, Calgary and Carolina if Nill does try to acquire a new goalie. Of the established names with No. 1 experience, we think Frederik Andersen, Petr Mrazek, Jimmy Howard, Marc-Andre Fleury, Semyon Varlamov, Ondrej Pavelec, Ryan Miller and Steve Mason could all be pried away for the right price.
The goalie issue overshadows some big holes opening up on the blue-line. Young stud John Klingberg committed to a marvelous contract a year ago, but the rest of the top four are all turning UFA. Alex Goligoski ($4.6 million), Jason Demers ($2.21 million) and Kris Russell ($2.6 million) will all be gunning for significant raises on the open market.
Johnny Oduya and Stephen Johns’ minutes should go up in 2016-17, and some young prospects could get a chance, but a couple of proven UFAs must sign. Dallas expressed interest in Dan Hamhuis at the deadline and might kick tires again. Brian Campbell, Keith Yandle and Kyle Quincey are also available.
Nill can take solace this summer knowing his excellent forward core will remain together, though he might want to extend the all-world Jamie Benn on July 2 to avoid 365 days of contract questions. Take the number Steven Stamkos signs for on the open market as a starting point for the 2017 UFA. (Veteran wings Sharp and Ales Hemsky will come off the books in summer 2017.)
After underwhelming with just nine goals this season, Nichuskin, 21, could be a useful trade chip or re-signed short-term at a reasonable rate, and decisions must be made on cheap UFA depth forwards Travis Moen, Vernon Fiddler and Patrick Eaves.
Since graduating from Detroit to take the reins in Dallas, Nill has been one of the busiest and most impressive GMs in the league. He’s molded the Stars into a more balanced and scarier team. Now he must turn it into a champion.