FRISCO, Texas -- There isn’t much hanging on the walls of Jim Nill’s office, which sits just above the practice ice at Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco, home of the Dallas Stars.
There are nails, at least. But no pictures of Stars hockey players or even a few he helped bring to the Detroit Red Wings in his long tenure there.
“That’s on the list,” Nill said. “Be patient.”
Patience is something Nill is working hard to preach -- and even harder to practice.
The 55-year-old Western Canada native admits that the competitor in him makes it difficult for him to accept that turning around a Stars franchise that last made the playoffs when George W. Bush was still in the White House (and not yet living in Dallas) isn’t going to happen quickly.
“I’ve got to be honest: I think we’re going to turn the corner, but we’re probably two years away from what we should be,” Nill said last week. “The core of the team is 20 to 26 years of age. That’s young. You give those guys two years to mature and what we have coming up in the system and I think in two years we’ll have a solid core. That’s how Stanley Cup champions are built. We are in the early stage, but we have the talent.”
It’s early in Nill’s inaugural season, but already his patience is getting tested. Dallas is 3-5-0 and is struggling on defense. The club is near the bottom of the league in shots against and, as you can imagine, is taking too many penalties thanks to the puck spending an inordinate amount of time in the Stars’ own end. It doesn’t help that starting goalie Kari Lehtonen has missed most of those games after tweaking his groin earlier in the season. He’s slated to return Thursday against Calgary.
“We just have to stay patient,” Nill said.
There’s that word again. What you won’t see in Nill is any kind of panic. That’s just not his style. Neither is skating into a new environment and showing off his guns despite his freshly-minted status as the Stars’ sheriff. But he has a way -- perhaps it’s his keen knowledge of the game and calm, yet assured demeanor -- of allowing his belief and confidence to seep into every aspect of the organization. He’s in charge, there’s no doubt about that. But he doesn’t have to flaunt it or demand it.
“The guy has no ego,” Stars owner Tom Gaglardi said. “He’s knows what he’s talking about. He’s on his game. He’s very competitive and hungry.”
Part of that comes from the fact that he was Ken Holland’s right-hand man in Detroit for so long, helping that organization draft, develop and hold onto key pieces that have made them the envy of most clubs in the NHL. And part of it is Nill has the ability to make those working for him feel immediately like they have a critical say in the direction of the franchise.
Maybe it’s that whole patience thing again. After all, Nill had chances to leave Detroit and didn’t. Part of it was his family. Part of it was his wife’s health -- Bekki has incurable liver cancer. It was discovered two years ago and 12 years after her breast cancer went into remission.
But when the Stars called, the Nills decided it was time for a move. That was after 19 years in management with the Red Wings and another three before that as a player.
Nill said he was sold after meeting Gaglardi and becoming convinced that there was stability in ownership and a commitment to winning. And he knew there were key pieces on the ice to building a contender.
“Any successful team is built from goaltending to defense to center ice,” Nill said. “You have to be good down the middle.”
Nill called Lehtonen a “great goalie” and is convinced he’s a player the team can build around.
“I don’t think he realizes how good he can be,” Nill said. “He’s at that age where he can figure it out.”
But the other two parts of Nill’s equation are going to take some work. He knew that before he arrived.
“There’s weakness on defense and we have to do something, but I know there are some prospects coming up,” Nill said. “That takes time. Defense is a tough position to learn. You need experience. The other big spot is center ice. That was a major hole.”
Nill went about plugging it. He moved Jamie Benn back to wing, his natural position, and named him team capatin. Nill made the biggest trade of his brief tenure, giving up a packaged centered by Loui Eriksson to get Tyler Seguin, a talented 21-year-old center. The deal didn’t come without some risk. Seguin made waves even before he skated in Dallas, putting some things on Twitter he shouldn’t have. But Nill managed to land one of the best centers available and did so by doing his homework. Boston needed to make a move with the salary cap dipping and the Stars had the ability to do it and improve their forward group. Nill made sure the Bruins had the Stars in mind when they were ready to make a move.
It was a deal in the mold of Nill’s philosophy: Find a young core to build the club around and then keep improving. Nill believes in doing that through draft and development, key trades and quality signings. It’s a blueprint that has made the Red Wings the envy of every organization in the NHL. You know the names -- Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary -- guys developed or obtained by the Wings that made up their core and shoved the winning window wide open.
Of course, sometime mistakes are made. You could argue, at least right now, that $10 million for two years of an aging Sergei Gonchar might not have been money well spent. But Nill will also argue that having Gonchar and even Shawn Horcoff teach the younger guys about life off the ice will help them two or three years down the road, when Gonchar and Horcoff aren’t a part of this club anymore.
Nill believes strongly in what he’s doing and he’s not going to change course, even when the ice gets a bit choppy.
“You have to have stability,” Nill said. “If you start making changes every two years on philosophy, you’re going to chase your tail.
“We’re going to draft and develop. That’s the key in the world of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement, which includes a salary cap). You have to make smart signings. If you get committed to somebody long-term for big money and it’s the wrong person, your hands are tied.
“We want to be a high-paced, hungry, competitive team. We’ll play hard and move the puck. You can’t play to not make a mistake. We want to make plays. But you have to be smart. That takes time to learn.”
Nill also knows it takes a coach to help make that happen. He made the decision to fire Glen Gulutzan shortly after he took the job and began a search. Nill wanted someone with experience who could motivate and teach a young group. So he hired Lindy Ruff.
“The process of hiring a coach was probably the toughest thing I’ve had to do in my young career as a GM,” Nill said. “You know people, but you don’t know them. You interview and some people are naturally polished and some aren’t. That may not mean anything.
“I don’t want to say I got lucky, but I got the right guy. He’s a great person. The one thing I didn’t realize is he’s such a detailed guy. His passion is unbelievable.”
Nill didn’t overhaul the existing management group. Instead, he came in and evaluated the people left after Joe Nieuwendyk’s departure and decided to keep most of them. Les Jackson, the assistant GM, is respected in the game for his ability to evaluate talent as he runs the club’s scouting department. Mark Janko and Scott White do a fair amount of negotiating contracts and keeping up-to-date on the CBA, which a quick glance makes it appear you need several advanced degrees to understand.
“He cares about every detail in the entire organization from players, player salaries and treating the players with respect as well as staff, training staff, scouts, everybody,” Janko said. “He wants to know about everything that happens every day, but not in a controlling way. It’s more in a leadership way.”
The Stars clearly have their leader. And he’s telling anyone who will listen that while he’s frustrated with his team’s start, he’s staying patient.
“Patience is tough for everybody,” Gaglardi said. “I expect to get better. I don’t want to go backward. How far that takes us in terms of making the playoffs or how many rounds we win? I don’t know. I think this is a core of guys that in the next couple of years are going to improve and then in year three or four or five, we’ve got a real shot to win. That’s what we’re building for. But it takes time.”
In the meantime, Nill and his staff will continue to look for any way to improve the club while never wavering from their philosophy. Perhaps with some of that patience, Nill could hang a few photos on his office wall, though?