Wiebe’s World: Stars GM Jim Nill sees room for improvement after long playoff run

Dallas Stars, including Ty Dellandrea (10), Miro Heiskanen (4) and Roope Hintz (24) celebrate with Joe Pavelski (16) after his overtime goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals Thursday, May 25, 2023, in Dallas. (Gareth Patterson/AP)

WINNIPEG – Because of the way the Stanley Cup playoffs ended for the Dallas Stars, there was plenty of online chatter about what to do with captain Jamie Benn.

Despite a two-game suspension and a quiet series finale against the Vegas Golden Knights, Benn still produced three goals and 11 points in 17 playoff games while helping the Stars reach the Western Conference Final after recording 33 goals and 78 points while appearing in all 82 games during the regular season.

Benn, who turns 34 next month and has two more seasons that carry a cap hit of $9.5 million, finished second in team scoring behind Jason Robertson last season and was third in goals.

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During his season-ending availability, Stars GM Jim Nill was asked if he felt Benn could continue to produce at that level moving forward.

“I’ve talked about this before, he changed his training and got lighter. He understands the game has gotten a lot quicker,” Nill told reporters. “Wyatt Johnston was a big part of that, it rejuvenated him. He loved playing with a younger player. We managed his minutes better. With (head coach Peter DeBoer’s) system, the forwards, they all play 12 to 16 minutes. We don’t have anybody that’s pushing the 20-minute mark. It’s about four lines. That paid off individually and as a team.”

Nill expressed an interest in trying to retain forwards Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov, who were obtained prior to the NHL trade deadline, but realizes there could be financial challenges, with a projection of roughly $4.5 million in cap space available.

“Max came in and did a great job for us. I got to know him as a person, which was important,” said Nill. “He was a great fit for us. We loved him. We are going to talk to his agent and see if we can get something done. We are dealing with a flat cap world and we’ll see where that goes.”

As for areas of improvement for what will be DeBoer’s second season behind the bench as the Stars look to take the next step?

“We need to improve everywhere. You’re always trying to get better,” said Nill. “We can have a little more depth scoring. On defence, we can be better. I even think we can be better goaltending-wise. This was a big year for Jake Oettinger. He’s never really been a true No. 1 the whole year. He became that and there are ups and downs that go with that.

“Same with the playoffs. His coming-out party was against Calgary two years ago and that was one round. Now, he hit two rounds, three rounds, it’s a different learning thing. He learned that, he knows that and he’s going to be a better goalie for it.”

Oettinger ended up playing in 81 games (including 80 starts) between the regular season and the playoffs and he’s one of the reasons the Stars are going to be one of the teams to beat in the West this fall.

“You manage it, but it’s a good thing. That means you went a long way in the playoffs,” said Nill. “Most (starting) goalies are going to play 50 to 60 games and when you add 20 in the playoffs, that gets you up to 80. That’s part of the learning process.

“Unfortunately we had an injury to (Scott) Wedgewood. We would have probably liked to take five to eight games off of that (during the regular season). But if you’re a No. 1 goalie, you’re still going to play 80-plus games, if you’re going to go the whole way.”

Nill believes this run to the conference final is something that will serve his group well into next season and beyond.

“We forget how young some of these guys are,” he said. “This is their first kick at the can. There’s a lot that you go through. It’s the mental preparation, the grind of the playoffs. You’re spent.

“But you have to go through it. To live it, to learn it and to get better. We were two wins from being in the final and from there, who knows what happens? But we want to get there and we want to sustain it, that’s the biggest thing.”

Nill also shared some insight from his experience with the management team of the Detroit Red Wings, who endured some heartbreaking losses before reaching the ultimate goal.

“The further you go, the harder it is to lose and the more critical people get,” said Nill. “You forget about the teams that are sitting there that don’t even make the playoffs. It’s funny how it is. Going back to my other organization, we had a good team and the one year, we lost in the first round and everybody wanted to blow it up. The next year, we lost in the second round and then the real pressure was to blow it up. We stuck with it and we won two Cups afterwards.

“My message is that it’s easier to go backwards than it is to go forwards, so be careful what you do.”

BLUE JACKETS MAKE MOVES

It’s clear that Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen wanted to get a headstart on his competition when it came to addressing the defence corps.

Over the course of several days, Kekalainen added a pair of blue-liners in separate deals, bringing in Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson.

Kekalainen showed some creativity in the three-way deal with the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings, adding a seventh overall pick from the 2015 NHL Draft in Provorov, a player who was clearly ready for a change of address.

The Blue Jackets then got permission to negotiate an eight-year deal with Severson before a sign-and-trade package was worked out with the New Jersey Devils.

Severson’s eight-year deal is worth $50 million and gives him a cap hit of $6.25 million, while Provorov will count $4.75 million on the cap since the Kings are retaining $2.025 million of his salary over the next two seasons.

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Almost every single team in the NHL is looking to bolster their respective blue line and both Provorov and Severson should help a group that figures to include Zach Werenski (coming back from injury), Erik Gudbranson, Adam Boqvist, Andrew Peeke, Nick Blankenburg and potentially David Jiricek, the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

As for the rumblings about the third overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft potentially being up for grabs, don’t expect Kekalainen to do anything other than select Leo Carlsson or Adam Fantilli in Nashville later this month.

The Blue Jackets have been looking for a franchise building block pivot since moving Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets in 2020, so it’s highly unlikely they’re going to pass up the opportunity to select one.

Both Carlsson and Fantilli are coming off strong seasons that concluded with participating in the 2023 IIHF World Men’s Hockey Championship and both could end up being a foundational piece moving forward.

There is clearly some urgency for the Blue Jackets to win, but it’s hard to imagine another team making the type of offer required to entice Kekalainen to trade a pick as high as this one.

GAVRIKOV STAYS PUT

Kings GM Rob Blake was busy last week as well, shipping out goalie Cal Peterson (and the final two years of his contract that pays him $5 million per season) and defenceman Sean Walker in the aforementioned three-way deal with the Flyers and Blue Jackets.

Not only did the Kings clear out some cap space to address some other needs, they filled one on the back end by extending blue-liner Vladislav Gavrikov on a two-year contract that carries an AAV of $5.875 million.

Gavrikov was an excellent fit with the Kings after arriving in a trade deadline deal, as a mobile puck-mover who can play a physical game.

Why would a 27-year-old D-man who doesn’t put up a lot of points decide to accept a two-year pact rather than go long-term?

Well, it would appear to be another example of a player betting on himself and expecting the salary cap to rise steadily when this deal expires.

You would expect the Kings wanted to secure Gavrikov’s services a bit longer, but a two-year deal helps the organization extend their window of contention and creates enough flexibility to pursue some further roster upgrades in free agency or trade.

The Kings will certainly be looking for a goalie to share the crease with Pheonix Copley, among other things this offseason.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR BRIERE?

It’s not like Flyers GM Danny Briere just dipped his toe in the water after taking over the job, this was a big splash as he embarks on a full rebuild – and there could be another cannonball or two around the corner.

With Peterson added to the goalie depth in the organization, it’s led to speculation that Carter Hart could be on the move.

Hart, 24, has one more season at $3.979 million before he becomes a restricted free agent and is the type of goalie who could benefit from heading to a new home.

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With the Flyers looking more toward the future, Hart’s lower AAV would be easy for most contenders to absorb into their salary structure before getting a better idea of what a longer-term deal could look like.

You can be sure the Flyers will also be getting a lot of calls to see what it will take to pry forward Travis Konency out of Philadelphia as well.

Konecny is coming off a season where he led the Flyers in scoring with 31 goals and 61 points and he’s under contract through the 2024-25 season at an AAV of $5.5 million.

FIREBIRDS ON THE VERGE

The Coachella Valley Firebirds are up 2-0 on the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup final, leaving them two wins away from an AHL championship.

The Firebirds, the primary affiliate of the Seattle Kraken, have not given up a goal in the first two games after earning 4-0 and 5-0 victories.

Coached by Stanley Cup champion Dan Bylsma, the Firebirds are getting excellent goaltending throughout the playoffs from Joey Daccord, who has gone 14-7 with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage to go along with three shutouts.

Daccord, who was 26-8-3 during the regular season with a 2.38 GAA and .918 save percentage, also got into five games with the Kraken this season and this recent run might be enough to get him back into the picture for NHL duty this summer when he will be a Group 6 unrestricted free agent.

Offensively, the Firebirds have been led by former Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole Lind, who is up to seven goals and 27 points in 21 games to lead the Calder Cup playoffs in scoring.

The Firebirds have a balanced offensive attack, with all five of the top AHL playoff performers on their roster, including Max McCormick (24 points), Ryker Evans (21 points), Cameron Hughes (19 points) and Alexander True (18 points).

Shane Wright, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, has two goals and seven points in 19 games as he’s wrapping up an important developmental season that included stops in the NHL (eight games with the Kraken), the Ontario Hockey League (24 games with the Windsor Spitfires, including the playoffs), the world junior hockey championship (seven games and a gold medal with Team Canada) and the AHL (27 games and counting, including the playoffs).

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RAPID FIRE

Nobody asked me, but there is no need for supplemental discipline for Golden Knights defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who left the penalty box after the final buzzer sounded at the end of Game 4 and made his way to the fracas in front of his own net. It’s not like he jumped out of the sin bin and immediately started a fight. There was a headlock applied certainly and then an exchange with Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk, but let’s not forget the Panthers had a 6-on-4 advantage on the ice at the end of the contest and they instigated the situation when Brandon Montour buried Brayden McNabb with a cross-check from behind.

Certainly, rules are in place to ensure that no funny business transpires in these sort of situations, but things began with Pietrangelo simply wanting to go tap goalie Adin Hill on the pads after making a save in the dying seconds while he was serving a delay-of-game penalty in a one-goal game.

Kyle Bukauskas had another fun exchange with Sir Charles Barkley during Game 4 in Sunrise, Florida. Barkley loves hockey and shared his joy with being able to meet Hall of Famer and New York Islanders legend Denis Potvin. But before the interview was over, Barkley couldn’t contain his laughter when discussing an exchange he had at the hotel with Golden Knights centre Jack Eichel. Barkley said Eichel was cordial when he was complimenting his ability as a hockey player, but felt that Eichel had no idea who the NBA Hall of Famer was. Good on Barkley for doing his part to continue to promote the sport and good on Bukauskas for continuing the tradition of getting Barkley on camera during the Stanley Cup final.

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If you haven’t listened to the 32 Thoughts podcast where Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman welcomed Ryan Smith to the show, do yourself a favour and tune in. Smith, who owns the Utah Jazz of the NBA and Real Salt Lake of the MLS, is a fascinating individual and wants to run an NHL franchise one day. It’s hard to not be impressed by what he had to say and one would imagine NHL commissioner Gary Bettman feels the same way after meeting on several occasions. Smith has a clear passion for hockey and the big question right now is whether Salt Lake City is going to be a candidate for relocation or expansion.

The Kraken made a smart move by extending a three-year contract extension to GM Ron Francis on May 31, a deal that takes him through the 2026-27 season. Francis, who originally signed a five-year deal when he joined the expansion franchise, made some shrewd moves last offseason, trading for Oliver Bjorkstrand, signing Andre Burakovsky and adding Eeli Tolvanen on a waiver claim in December, to help the organization reach the Stanley Cup playoffs in just their second season of existence and winning their first round in a thrilling seven-game series with the Colorado Avalanche. The Kraken figure to be a team to watch this summer as well, since they could be in the market for another offensive weapon after taking care of some internal business that will include new deals for Vince Dunn, Will Borgen, Daniel Sprong and Morgan Geekie, among others.

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