LeBrun: Are the Stars feeling the pressure to take the final step? Catching up with GM Jim Nill

FRISCO, Texas — The walls in Jim Nill’s office here at the Dallas Stars practice facility are barren for the moment after a recent paint job.

No doubt what would look perfect hanging on one of them is a framed picture from next June of his team celebrating on the ice with Lord Stanley’s mug.

It’s about the only thing missing from Nill’s decade as general manager of the Stars. Since taking over in 2013, the team has seen plenty of change, aggressive trades, deft drafting and developing, and through it all, a patient, steady hand at the wheel.

Nill’s work was recognized after last season when he won the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year award, but as we began a sit-down interview in his office Monday afternoon, he was quick to deflect on that achievement.

“That’s more about the organization than a one-person thing,” Nill said. “It means I’ve got good people around me.”

Jim Nill was named Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year after last season. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

But it speaks to Nill’s make-up, too. He’s not one looking for the spotlight.

“The best way to describe him: We have a saying we use with our players all the time, which is the hardest thing to do is to work hard when no one’s watching,” Stars head coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think for Jim, that’s where for me his character is really revealed. When no one’s watching, how he treats support staff, how he treats the bus driver, how he treats the people at the rink, people from other organizations. Everybody walks away from a conversation with Jim Nill feeling good about themselves.”

Ask Nill a question about his accomplishments and the answer will come out with “team” in it.

“My job is just to hire good people and manage them,” Nill said. “That’s something I learned in Detroit and when I first started interviewing for (GM) jobs. I thought it was all about me finding players and stuff. Well it’s not about me. It’s about hiring good people who can go find good players and coach them and develop them. Once I figured that out, it kind of all fell into place. It changed my mindset a bit.”

This will be Nill’s 11th season at the helm of the Stars, and they are very much knocking at the door. It’s been a long process that has seen a couple of different runs at it.

“We got pretty fortunate and that’s why I talk about the people around me; my scouts did a heck of a job,” Nill said. “When I first came here, not a lot here. We had to make some trades, did the (Tyler) Seguin trade, picked up Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, kind of had a little thing going here for three, four years. Then some of the kids were coming in. Then we got to the point here about five years ago, it was ‘what direction are we going here?’ (Jamie) Benn and Seguin were starting to get a little bit on the back nine. We still had a pretty good team, but was it going to be good enough to contend? And then our scouting staff did a great job.”

The 2017 draft is turning into a legendary talent grab for the Stars, who selected defenseman Miro Heiskanen at No. 3, goalie Jake Oettinger at 26 and forward Jason Robertson at 39.

“So, all impactful players in different positions,” Nill said in crediting his scouting staff. “You add in the Roope Hintzes in there (drafted at No. 49 in 2015). And then we had another push, the Wyatt Johnsons and Logan Stankovens and Lian Bichsels now coming up.”

It’s resulted in a well-layered roster that has an older-but-still-impactful group led by Benn, Seguin, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Suter, then a core group pushing in Heiskanen, Hintz, Robertson and Oettinger, then the younger wave beneath them.

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Miro Heiskanen, Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz could be part of a contending core for a long time. (Chris Unger / Getty Images)

What it amounts to is a sustainable product as far as a multi-year window to contend. Whether it translates into a Cup, we’ll see. But it’s about building something that takes multiple cracks at it. And the Stars have that.

“We’re at a pretty good spot right now,” said Nill, whose team lost in the Western Conference final to the eventual Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in the spring.

“Jim has had a great career in the game — as a player, his success in Detroit (as AGM), and now with a perennial contender in Dallas,” reigning Cup champion GM Kelly McCrimmon said Monday. “He has tremendous respect across the NHL.”

Veteran Oilers GM Ken Holland goes back with Nill to when the two played junior together with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the mid-70s, later re-connecting in Detroit as the 1-2 management punch in a Red Wings front office that collected four Stanley Cup rings.

“Jim was a big part of our success in Detroit,” Holland said. “He oversaw the draft and drafted a lot of the key players that were cornerstones of a lot of success in Detroit. I was thrilled for him in 2013. Also disappointed because I was going to lose him, but happy that he got an opportunity to be GM.

“He keeps Dallas in the playoffs every year. They’re legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. And because of his playing days and his scouting days and then he was GM of (AHL) Grand Rapids, I think all of those experiences have got him ready for this opportunity in Dallas and he’s done an unbelievable job.

“He builds great relationships, not only with his staff but with his players. … One of the best general managers in the National Hockey League.”

A decade-plus at the helm of an NHL franchise is a long time these days, especially without winning a Cup. But Stars owner Tom Gaglardi has stuck with Nill, extending him again last year through the 2025-26 season.

“I’ve had great support from my ownership,” Nill said. “We always challenge each other. But whenever I do need something, he’s always been there to support me. And I appreciate that. That’s important. And what he’s done for this franchise here in Dallas, you know, it was in bankruptcy and he put his family’s name on the line to come here and purchase it, and he’s done a good job with it.”

Let’s not kid ourselves: There have obviously been some tougher moments. Owners want to win, and the Stars haven’t won a Cup since Gaglardi took over. But Nill has the temperament to handle owners’ expectations.

His calm demeanor impacts the people who work for him, too.

“From a selfish point of view, he’s a guy that believes in hiring good people and letting them do their job,” DeBoer said. “From a coaching perspective, that’s a great environment to work in.

“He doesn’t overreact to situations. He understands how hard it is to win because he’s won.”

DeBoer then added with a chuckle: “But he also understands that we’re both headed down the backstretch here and there’s an importance to try to win a Cup here, including a few of our players who I know are special to him, guys like Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski.”

It’s not Cup or bust in these parts — not with a team that, again, is set up to contend for a while — but there’s certainly a healthy sense of urgency to take that final step after a Cup final appearance in 2020 and last season’s deep run.

They’re ready for that final step. Which doesn’t mean it’ll happen.

“A lot of things have to go right,” Nill said. “You have to have a good team, yes. Players have to play the right way, yes. You’ve got to get lucky with the injuries. You’ve got to get some breaks.

“That’s where I was fortunate through my experience in Detroit. We had a lot of good teams for a lot of years, but I look back and we probably left three, four Cups on the table. The years we won it, we didn’t think we were going to. And the years we didn’t, we did.”

The Stars’ philosophy, Nill said, is simply to put themselves in position to have a shot. That’s all you can bank on in the NHL. And the Stars look to have multiple shots at it.

As for the future, the 65-year-old Nill isn’t ready for the 18th hole just yet.

“My health’s good, I’ve got the passion, we’ve got a good team, I love the people around me, I’ve got the support around me, so you know what, I think I’ve got few years left in me,” Nill said. “I hope I do.”

“My wife sometimes is probably glad I still do it, too.”

Nill is a hockey lifer. I’m not sure he would imagine his life without the sport at the heart of it.

“The minute I’d say, ‘I’m probably done,’ I’m knocking at the door the next day saying, ‘Hey, I want to do something,’” Nill said.

“The game’s been great to me. My wife and I talk about this all the time. Even as a player, I got traded four, five times, you think that must have been tough; it was great. The people we’ve met along the way and have become friends within the hockey world and outside the hockey world, the game’s been good to us.”

(Top photo of Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski: Curtis Comeau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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