Of the various offseasons across different sports, few can feel as dry as your typical late July to mid-September in the NHL. But good news is here: We have crossed into the back end of September and training camp is now just a few days away.
The Stars’ summer was especially quiet, as there was no coaching search to conduct and no case of multiple superstars due for fancy new deals. However, the excitement from Stars fans is palpable as the team emerges from a Western Conference final appearance and heads into the 2023-24 season with high hopes.
Stars general manager Jim Nill spoke with The Athletic ahead of training camp, which officially begins Thursday in Cedar Park. Let’s dive into the conversation, with analysis of his responses as well. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Coming off of a great season, deep playoff run and high expectations, a championship window that is only opening up more is a rare combination of circumstances that this organization hasn’t felt in a while. How does that set your vibe for the team entering training camp?
Nill: You talk about expectations, and that’s a good thing. That’s where we want to be. Now, it’s up to us — the players, management, coaches. We need to execute on that now. We’ve had a couple of good runs here in the last four or five years and we’re set up pretty well now. We talk about the mixing of the ages and the experience, young guys that are coming up, older guys that are on it. The organization is in a good spot but now we have to execute. It’s been a step-by-step thing, and now we have to take it to the next level. That’s probably the toughest level to take now. We got to the third round last year, now you want to get to the finals.
Analysis: When Nill is speaking to the “good runs” of recent years, this past season’s run to the conference final and the 2020 Stanley Cup Final run are front of mind, but the 2019 run to the second round can be looped in as well. The overall outlook of the franchise is better set up for this upcoming year than any of the previous encores.
But my biggest takeaway, as somebody who has covered Nill for the past half-decade, is the tone in which the Stanley Cup Final is being spoken about now. There’s no question in my mind that Nill has always aspired to put together a roster that has a shot at a championship run. However, the tone and language have typically been geared toward a “let’s just make the playoffs and then anything can happen” sentiment — which, in the NHL, is not untrue.
Now, there seems to be a more direct acknowledgement of the ultimate goal. It’s no longer “Obviously we want to win a Cup, but let’s just get to the playoffs and see what happens” and more along the lines of “The standard is the Stanley Cup Final.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, or maybe Nill’s confidence in this group and these circumstances are bleeding through. Perhaps it’s a combination of both. But Nill is somebody who knows very well what championship hockey looks like and how to build those teams, going back to his Detroit days, and it appears that his process in Dallas has reached a heightened point of confidence.
You guys filled in the depth at forward with veterans in free agency but also have young talents knocking on the door. What are the conversations like with each group going into training camp in terms of who has a legitimate chance, or hold, on the roster spots for opening night?
Nill: The good part is that the players make that decision for you. We’re going to come in and let’s hope they all make it hard on us and now we have some decisions to make. We have some flexibility within those decisions but let’s hope we have a real competitive training camp and everybody plays at the level we want them to be. Now we know we’re in a good spot. That’s a good problem to have. I’ve been around long enough to know Plan A turns into Plan C, D and E sometimes. We’re going to start off where we are and then make adjustments as we go.
Analysis: There’s less urgency this year for a top prospect to crack the opening night roster than there was even last year with Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven. The signings of Matt Duchene, Craig Smith and Sam Steel all contribute to that. We’ll get to training camp storylines later in the week but this is a top one for me.
The one element of truth that everybody would be wise to accept is that Johnston was the exception, not the rule. The rookie season Johnston had last year — from the start of training camp to scoring two series-clinching goals in the playoffs — was rare, both in terms of his talent and maturity, as well as his consistently upward trajectory.
If Stankoven and/or Mavrik Bourque make the NHL roster out of training camp, that’s fantastic and will be an earned spot. If they don’t, there’s no shame in starting off in the AHL; it doesn’t dim the light on their future any bit. When they do finally arrive on the scene in the NHL, if they hit the ground running Johnston style, that’s great. If there are growing pains, that’s normal, too. Just ask Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson.
Also, keep in mind that there are business aspects attached to all of these decisions as well. That’s why Thomas Harley’s elevation last year was delayed by four months. During the interview, Nill looped back to the overall depth multiple times. That goes into the preparation for Plan A to turn into Plan D. The Stars didn’t deal with many injuries last year. That’s the hope, but not the expectation. Over the course of the marathon, the team will need more than the 12 forwards who suit up against the St. Louis Blues on opening night.
What’s your confidence level in Nils Lundkvist to become a mainstay in the lineup?
Nill: We’re excited. I think he’s going to come in and show us that he’s going to take the next step. He ended up playing (60) games last year (and) was actually the leading defenseman in goals scored in the league last year among rookies. He had a good year, just a situation where we got to the playoffs and really, his first year in the league, it’s part of the process with young defensemen. You’ve got to have patience with young defensemen. Let’s see if he takes that next step. If he does, we’re in a good position. Thomas Harley went through this two or three years himself. It’s a process, everybody does it in different stages, but these guys have been the top players of their age group. Now, they’re taking that next step and we’ll see where it takes them.
Analysis: Perhaps the greatest divide in player usage between the inside and outside of the organization last year revolved around Lundkvist — even more so than Denis Gurianov, which is saying something. Two things can be true at the same time: The Stars could not trust Lundkvist on the ice last season and the Stars believe in his future as a legitimate NHL talent. The Stars were a team in win-now mode trying to balance these two aspects.
At the end of the season, head coach Pete DeBoer echoed these sentiments from Nill and emphasized that, even more than just patience with defensemen, there’s a need for patience in the development of offensive defensemen. It was a huge luxury for Harley to be able to work on his game away from the limelight in the AHL, where personal development comes before team results. Lundkvist, because of his waiver eligibility status, does not have that same benefit.
It’s possible the Stars are forcing themselves to believe in Lundkvist because they paid a first-round pick for him and want him to pan out, or it’s possible they truly just believe in his potential that much. Whatever the motive is, the Stars need Lundkvist to take the next step, otherwise there will be some concerns about the right side of the blue line all season.
How much do these long playoff runs and on-ice success help with the marketability of some of your superstar talents and help them shed the “underrated” label?
Nill: It helps a lot. In the end, it’s the players. They’re the ones that perform. When they do that, they’re going to start to get their recognition. I think we’re starting to get there now. You get to the third round of the playoffs, you’re on the national stage now. We aren’t a so-called heavy hockey market down in Dallas but I think we’ve done a good job in the last 10 years of building that brand.
Analysis: The Stars are becoming more visible on the national stage because they have talents that are shining through more and are gaining bigger platforms because of team success. Hintz was one of the best playoff performers this past spring, something that should boost his status going into this regular season, too. Now that Patrice Bergeron has retired, the Selke Trophy conversation is a little more open and Hintz should be in that dialogue.
Miro Heiskanen should have been a Norris finalist last season but was overlooked. However, he had some big playoff moments, and that should carry over. Even if his season isn’t as great this year, Heiskanen may get some more love just by virtue of his two big playoff showings in 2020 and 2023.
(Top photo of Jim Nill: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)