Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bag of Pucks - April 30 - Jim Nill Edition

It was a bizarre night on Saturday evening when the Stars were playing out the string against Detroit in an arena full of red and equally of defeat for anyone who loves hockey in Dallas.

For what seems like the umpteenth time in a row, the Stars fight and claw and come up short.  Actually, it was only the 5th season in a row, but after they spoiled us by showing success virtually anytime they wanted in the first 15 years in town, the Dallas Stars have hit a dead end.  Again.  And Again.

Trying to figure out where the Stars took a wrong turn after their fantastic run in the 2008 playoffs, there are certainly plenty of events that strung together in succession.  Was it the retirement of Sergei Zubov and 2 other significant defensemen at the same time?  Was it the ill-advised signing of Sean Avery that summer when most of the league wouldn't touch him?  Was it the firing of Dave Tippett when he had only missed the playoffs one time in his six seasons in Dallas (you know, the season you gave him Sean Avery in the middle of his room and took Zubov away)?  Was it the bankruptcy and embarrassing manner in which Tom Hicks left the franchise?  Was it cranking the payroll back significantly year after year (from over $70m to down to the bare minimum the league allows)?  Was it firing Doug Armstrong in the first place?

We could go on.  But, the point is this thing was broken down to where whoever took the job over was going to have to pitch a perfect game to get out of that mess.  And even that might not have been enough.

So, when Joe Nieuwendyk was dismissed on Saturday Night in a way that was a bit unfortunate (it appears he found out the same way we did, via reporters in Canada), it struck me as less than a fair way to summarize his 4 years here in Dallas.

Now, in the interest of being open, I am a big Joe Nieuwendyk supporter because of the way he conducts his business going back to the first time I met him upon coming to Dallas in 1998.  He has always been 100% class and seemed perfect for this type of position when he was done playing.  He inherited a chance at being a general manager in the NHL, but was certainly not lucky enough to inherit one where the odds were stacked in his favor.

He made some major mis-steps along the way, but also some significant positive moves.  The fans began to associate him with the dire times inside the organization which seems incredibly misdirected, but that is the nature of the beast.  The owner makes a major mess of everything and then shoves his representatives out to deal with the angry public.  They do the best they can, because they are lucky enough to have a high ranking spot in the NHL, knowing full well that they are on borrowed time because the entire thing was broken and not set for success with 1st class organizations that they must compete with.

Nieuwendyk's first decision might have been the one that bit him the most, looking back, when he fired Tippett immediately to get his guy in as coach.  Let's be honest, watching the duo of Armstrong and Tippett find success in their very next gigs after leaving Dallas doesn't help any of us feel better about how this thing has gone.  Both coaches that Nieuwendyk hired looked the part as reasonable hires, but the fact that the results never were found doesn't help, either.

The trades have been gone over and for every Goligoski complaint, there should be an equally loud Lehtonen cheer, but it seldom seems that happens.  The infusion of young talent that has been assembled suggests that Joe helped build the next wave of talent that is coming through the system and that will be reaped by his successor.  Time will tell the quality and there are some first round pick decisions that I certainly continue to 2nd guess, but overall, this thing is in way better shape than Nieuwendyk found it.

But, the biggest thing I would say about his run is that we still don't know how he would do as a general manager with a full deck of cards.  His payroll rankings when he was in charge were right there with the worst in the league and therefore to expect top notch results that compare to Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong when they always had Top 5 payrolls and he had Bottom 5 payrolls is just flat-out ridiculous and unfair.

His biggest signing in free agency?  Would you believe the small signing of Ray Whitney last summer for 2 years/$9 million (Remember: Brett Hull had $15.5 million to give Sean Avery and traded for the giant Brad Richards deal before that)?  As a general manager in the NHL, to never have a free agent signing or acquisition that valued over that is incredible and uncommon.  To judge his work with that millstone around his neck is silly.  Now, yes, he did make the big signings of Goligoski, Benn, Lehtonen, and others inside the organization (many times to just get to the cap floor, mind you), but when this team need additions, it was always in the bargain bin.

So, they had no choice but to find bargains and turn refuse into chicken salad whenever possible.  Sometimes, it worked well as guys like Brenden Dillon get me very excited, but other times you are led to believe that Joe will be hard pressed to have the odds stacked more against him in his next gig.

It was destined to fail, regardless of the GM.  In a sense, Armstrong is lucky he found a new home in St Louis where they were serious about building a contender.

But, thankfully, Tom Hicks was forced out of business.  He had done enough damage to erase the good he helped create a decade earlier.  And after the NHL ran the Stars for a short spell, enter Tom Gaglardi.  At first, his best characteristic was that he was not the old guy.  Slowly, we are seeing what he has on his list of objectives, and it does seem to include a thirst to build a winner.

Talk is cheap, though, and I always said we should give him a fair chance, but actions will always speak louder than words.  Gaglardi has been in power for 18 months and although we have seen small signs of determined actions to make things right on the ice, it has been slow and calculated to get through the work stoppage and moving out assets that were expiring and making room for the kids.

He did not make changes on the hockey side until Saturday when he decided Joe and surely his hire at coach, Glen Gulatzan were done.

Now, to hear it told, there is some confusion about whether or not this move was made because Jim Nill was available or it the Stars were changing GM no matter who the successor was.  In the end, that hardly matters, save for the history telling, but the since the entire league is responding to this hire with plaudits, it looks like they have quite a guy in the big chair here.

Pierre LeBrun from ESPN wrote about assistant general managers who were ready for the GM job back in February and listed Nill as his #1 guy:
1. Jim Nill, Detroit Red Wings: Now in his 15th season as assistant GM in Detroit, he has been GM material for a long time. And it just so happens that his contract will soon begin to present itself with annual six-week "out windows" when he can entertain GM offers from other teams, a source told ESPN.com. The first window comes this summer. With four Stanley Cup rings and a long list of late-draft gems on his resume, Nill is a top-notch candidate in waiting. It would have to be the right fit for him to leave Detroit, where he's happy and loyal to the Ilitch family, but it's a possibility. You can't go wrong if you name Nill as your GM. He'd be a superstar hire. 
That is an amazing endorsement and should make everyone excited.  But, maybe for different reasons than might be readily obvious.

I am fired up because a guy like Nill was only leaving Detroit if the move was perfect.  And I assume to do that he was able to secure assurances from Gaglardi and Jim Lites that if he comes here, he will be given the resources to compete - and not just for the playoffs, but ultimately for a Cup.

Clearly, hiring someone from a top organization makes sense, and sometimes it works like when Oklahoma City hired Sam Presti from the San Antonio Spurs, and sometimes it doesn't like when the Cavaliers hired Danny Ferry from the Spurs.

But, Nill comes with confidence, experience, and hopefully the eye for talent that everyone credits him with from many days with Ken Holland and Jim Devellano who along with Scotty Bowman made Detroit into what it is today.  They are the gold standard in hockey in the last 2 decades, so I have no problem stealing from the enemy who does it right.

He has a pretty solid youth system, a load of picks, and hopefully a stack of cash to make this thing happen.  He also has a 5-year deal, so we should assume he will play the long game in fixing, which means no reckless plays early just because he has money.  He will take his time and do what he needs to do to make sure this downturn in hockey ends with this hire.

As for Nieuwendyk, I know he will bounce back.  I understand fans being mad at someone, but the venom directed at him is just not overly reasonable given what he had to work with.  He inherited a bad situation and built a brighter future.  Did he deserve another year?  While I thought so, I also am fine with Gaglardi making a move if he things he needed a fresh start with his guys before he invests heavily in the future.

But, make no mistake:  It will take heavy investment from the owner to win a Cup and to fill this arena again.  The fans were misled for many years about whether this team was serious about winning or not, and ownership did not always practice what they preached.  Fine.  Water under the bridge.

As far as I am concerned, Gaglardi and Nill have a fresh start and the benefit of the doubt from me.  As for many of you, I am sure they are going to have to win you back.  And winning on the ice is the only way to do that.

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