How the Dallas Stars built their Cup-contending team

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill talked about the young players contributing in the playoffs and how they’ve embraced the bubble and playoff experience as a whole.

After defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in five games, the Dallas Stars are officially headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

So, what does it take to build a true Cup contender? The formula changes every year, and this year’s bubble edition of the post-season has brought a particular set of challenges.

General manager Jim Nill, who took over as general manager in April 2013, inherited a team with some cornerstone players in core defencemen John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, Esa Lindell and captain Jamie Benn, and put his stamp on the club over the past seven years via the draft, free agency, and trades.

To try to crack this year’s recipe for a winner, here’s a closer look at the Stars’ expanded 31-player roster that went into Edmonton as a top-four team in the Western Conference and now looks to emerge from the bubble as the 2019-20 champs.

DRAFTED & DEVELOPED

All four top-four rearguards were found via the draft, as was the face of the franchise.

Thomas Harley, Defence
Drafted: 2019, first round, 18th overall
Brought into the bubble on the expanded roster, Harley has appeared in just one game so far (a round-robin matchup against the Colorado Avalanche) but early signs point to him being yet another strong defenceman drafted by the Stars.

Ty Dellandrea, Centre
Drafted: 2018, first round, 13th overall
Another bubble-bound player who got the call after another impressive season as captain of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds, Dellandrea has yet to suit up for an NHL game.

Miro Heiskanen, Defence
Drafted: 2017, first round, third overall
One of the best parts of this post-season has been watching Heiskanen. The smooth-skating Finn was no-brainer pick at No. 3 back in 2017, and after last year’s rookie success has really broken out as a true difference-maker in Dallas. The Stars’ points leader tops all defencemen in assists (17) and points (22) this post-season and, at 21, he’s already scary-good and clearly just getting started.

Jake Oettinger, Goalie
Drafted: 2017, first round, 26th overall
Goalies can be a gamble in Round 1, as they’re typically slower to develop and can be tougher to assess among prospects. A brief stint in relief of Anton Khudobin in Game 2 versus the Golden Knights saw him stop all five shots he faced in 17 minutes of the final frame.

Jason Robertson, Left wing
Drafted: 2017, second round, 39th overall
A three-game call-up in February saw Robertson — older brother of Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson — register his first NHL assist, but the 21-year-old winger hasn’t played this post-season.

Nick Caamano, Right wing
Drafted: 2016, fifth round, 146th overall
On the brink of being a regular, Caamano appeared in 12 regular season games in 2019-20 — his first taste of the NHL — and earned a call to the Stars’ taxi squad.

Denis Gurianov, Right wing
Drafted: 2015, first round, 12th overall
After taking some extra time to develop with the Stars’ AHL affiliate, Gurianov enjoyed a stellar breakout season in 2019-20. His 20 regular-season goals led Dallas in the category, and the high-skill forward has come up clutch this post-season — particularly in Round 1 against the Calgary Flames, when he scored four markers in Game 6 to claim the series victory. He’s tied with Joe Pavelski for the team lead in goals these playoffs and has twice scored the game-winning goal — including the Game 5 series clincher in overtime against the Golden Knights to advance to the Cup final.

Roope Hintz, Left wing
Drafted: 2015, second round, 49th overall
When we talk about Stars forwards, we talk about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov — but it’s the second- and third-line scorers like Gurianov and Hintz who are so often the difference-makers when it comes to the playoff grind.

Jason Dickinson, Centre
Drafted: 2013, first round, 29th overall
Dickinson was Nill’s second draft pick upon taking over the Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013. The first was Valeri Nichushkin (10th overall in that 2013 draft), who never really panned out with Dallas and is now with Colorado.

Radek Faksa, Centre
Drafted: 2012, first round, 13th overall
Before sitting out Games 4 and 5 against Vegas as unfit to play, the 26-year-old proved himself to be one of the more underrated factors that makes the Stars so tough to play against.

Esa Lindell, Defence
Drafted: 2012, third round, 74th overall
Joe Nieuwendyk’s four-year tenure as Stars general manager didn’t yield any playoff appearances for Dallas, but it did bring some stellar defencemen onboard via the draft. Finding Lindell in the third round — the third-straight year of drafting what would become a core member of Dallas’ elite top-four defence — proved to be steal.

Jamie Oleksiak, Defence
Drafted: 2011, first round, 14th overall
Oleksiak is an interesting case — the Stars’ first-rounder spent six years with the Stars organization before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and two more since being re-acquired in 2018-19.

John Klingberg, Defence
Drafted: 2010, fifth round, 131st overall
Nieuwendyk’s first home-run draft pick landed the Stars their franchise D-man for the foreseeable future. Between Klingberg and Jamie Benn, the Stars have some true steals on the team…

Jamie Benn (C), Left wing
Drafted: 2007, fifth round, 129th overall
The longest-tenured Star and face of the franchise is also the organization’s biggest steal ever, a living example that it doesn’t matter when your name is called — once you’re drafted, you’ve got a shot.

TRADE

Nill hasn’t been afraid to be active when it comes to the trade market — and his biggest transaction as GM was actually his first.

Jamie Oleksiak (again), Defence
Acquired: Jan. 2019, from Pittsburgh, for fourth-round pick
Listing him here again because of the rearguard’s fascinating journey with the Stars. Nill wasn’t the GM in Dallas when Oleksiak was drafted in the first round of 2011, but he was at the helm when he dealt the defenceman away to Pittsburgh in December 2017 in exchange for a fourth-round pick — and when he made another deal with the Penguins to bring Oleksiak back into the fold two years later… for that same fourth-round pick.

Andrew Cogliano, Centre
Acquired: Jan. 2019, from Anaheim, for Devin Shore
Nill brought in the veteran and iron man in a rare one-for-one player deal. Cogliano’s three-year contract he signed with the Ducks still has one season remaining.

Taylor Fedun, Defence
Acquired: Nov. 2018, from Buffalo, in exchange for conditional seventh-round pick
After jumping around the league, Fedun got a shot with the Stars in a low-cost trade, and has been in and out of the lineup this post-season as a versatile depth piece.

Ben Bishop, Goalie
Acquired: May 2017, from L.A. Kings, for a fourth-round draft pick
The Stars essentially traded for Bishop’s negotiating rights in May 2017, flipping a fourth-round draft pick over to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a little extra time to talk to the pending UFA. It didn’t take long for Dallas to lock up the No. 1 goaltender, signing Big Ben to a six-year, $29.5 million deal later that month.

Stephen Johns, Defence
Acquired: July 2015, from Chicago, alongside Patrick Sharp
“A big part of the trade was the Stephen Johns kid,” Nill said, via NHL.com after the trade was complete. “He played for Rockford against [the Texas Stars] in the playoffs and pretty well manhandled us. He’s a big, strong, physical kid. He skates well. … He brings an element we don’t have. He’s a 6-4, 230-pound man, and he loves to play physical and is a good hockey player. The other part is he is a classy, classy kid. He’s a leader.”

Johns, who has since signed two extensions with the Stars, made his return to the ice earlier this season after missing 22 months due to post-traumatic headaches. Unfortunately, he’s been sidelined again throughout much of this post-season.

Tyler Seguin, Centre
Acquired: July 2013, from Boston, in a seven-player blockbuster
Nill wasted no time putting his stamp on the Stars upon taking over as GM. The trade that sent Seguin, then a young star with Boston, to Dallas is one of the most revisited exchanges in the past decade considering the high stakes and the many picks and pieces at play. In fact, we had another throwback to the transaction during the series against Vegas, as Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith was one of the prospects sent from Dallas to Boston in the deal.

Mattias Janmark, Centre/Left wing
Acquired: March 2015, from Dallas
Drafted by Detroit, Janmark never actually played for the Red Wings but rather was still a prospect when he was dealt to Dallas in March 2015 in a deal that included Erik Cole going the other way.

FREE AGENCY:

Centre Justin Dowling, defencemen Gavin Bayreuther and Joel Hanley, and goalie Landon Bow were all undrafted free agent signings out of college hockey who were brought into the Edmonton bubble as insurance as part of the league’s expanded roster allowance. Hanley has gotten the opportunity to step in, as has Finnish winger Joel Kiviranta, hero of Game 7 versus Colorado who had everyone googling his name. Kiviranta was also an undrafted find, and his performance upon stepping in for Andrew Cogliano in Round 2 will have Nill’s fellow GMs searching for more hidden gems from European leagues.

As for the NHL free agency market, Nill has shown a penchant for bringing in grit, experience, and secondary scoring — all things that are needed in spades (that, and a little luck) if you want to claim the Stanley Cup.

Joe Pavelski, Centre
Signed: July 1, 2019 (three years, $21M)
After 13 seasons in San Jose, the former Sharks captain pursued free agency and landed in Dallas — a great fit, considering the Stars’ troubles in the goal-scoring department and Pavelski’s penchant for doing exactly that. After his first regular season with the club brought lower-than-expected stats from the 36-year-old, he’s certainly found his scoring touch this post-season and should factor into the Cup Final in a big way.

Corey Perry, Right wing
Signed: July 1, 2019 (one year, $3.25M)
He’s not the scorer he once was, but Perry’s now the kind of depth veteran player every playoff team needs.

Andrej Sekera, Defence
Signed: July 1, 2019 (one year, $1.5M)
After his six-year, $33-million deal was bought out by the Edmonton Oilers in June 2019, Dallas scooped up Sekera on a one-year rebound deal for a little affordable blue line depth.

Alexander Radulov
Signed: July 3, 2017 (five years, $31.25M)
Radulov returned to the NHL from a KHL stint via a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens in 2016-17, and turned that success into a five-year pact with the Stars.

Anton Khudobin, Goalie
Signed: July 1, 2018 (two years, $5M)
The backup-turned-starter’s $2.5-million cap hit is probably the best money Nill’s spent all year. Feels like a no-brainer to re-sign this off-season.

Blake Comeau, Left wing
Signed: July 1, 2018 (three years, $7.2M)
As evidenced by this signing, Nill’s focus on the free agency market was on experience and depth. Comeau, veteran of 14 seasons, brings both to his sixth NHL squad.

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