General Manager Jim Nil is the Star of the Dallas Stars | Dallas Observer

The Dallas Stars' Most Valuable Person Just Might Be the General Manager

For years, Jim Nill of the Stars has consistently supplied the organization with one of the deepest talent pools in the NHL.
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill won the General Manager of the Year award in 2023.
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill won the General Manager of the Year award in 2023. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Share this:
If you’ve been around the DFW sports scene long enough, chances are you can name at least one of the general managers from one of the four primary local pro sports teams. I’d guess most sports fans around here are aware that team owner Jerry Jones also carries the GM title for the Dallas Cowboys. After last November, perhaps more are familiar with the work of Chris Young with the Texas Rangers. The big trade for Kyrie Irving a couple years ago might’ve helped you recognize Nico Harrison, GM of the Dallas Mavericks.

But it’s quite possible that many do not fully realize the brilliance of arguably the best GM in town: Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars.

As the Stars battle in their second consecutive Western Conference Final, it feels like a great time to take a look at how Nill put together the best franchise in our area over the last few years.

In the spring of 2013, the Stars were coming off a fifth consecutive season without a playoff appearance. Joe Nieuwendyk, an on-ice hero of the franchise as the Conn Smythe winner on the ’99 Stanley Cup-winning team, had served as GM since 2009 without much success. Team owner Tom Gaglardi, who bought the Stars in 2011, decided to go in a different direction for the GM role.

Back then, I think many in the hockey world believed Jim Nill was the best possible candidate. He had been with the Detroit Red Wings under the tutelage of the legendary Scotty Bowman and then Ken Holland, and had helped Detroit assemble the teams that won four Stanley Cups while he was there in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. It was time for Nill to get a shot as the head man.

Just three months after being hired by the Stars, on July 4 of 2013, Nill made a blockbuster trade to acquire Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins. In his first season as GM, in 2013–14, the Stars made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to Anaheim. The following year, despite finishing with more points in the standings than the previous season, the Stars missed the playoffs. But Nill continued to build the team, never afraid to make trades. He traded for Patrick Sharp in 2015 and was in the middle of a flurry of deadline deals in 2019, including trades for Andrew Cogliano and Mats Zuccarello that helped the Stars get to a second-round Game 7 against the Blues.

The Stars made the playoffs only twice in his first five seasons, 2013–2018, but there were moves made that set the foundation for the team that is now playing in their third Western Conference Final in the last 5 seasons.

The depth of the team that Nill has built reveals a map of shrewd moves made over the last few years, culminating in a legitimate title contender. In 2015, the Stars drafted Roope Hintz in the second round. In the 2017 draft, they acquired Miro Heiskanen with the third overall pick, then, in a move that might not have gotten much attention at the time, Nill traded a third-round pick to move up three spots from 29th to 26th to select franchise goalie Jake Oettinger. In that same draft, the Stars acquired current leading scorer Jason Robertson in the second round.

Not stopping there, the 2018 draft brought Ty Dellandrea in the first round and the next year, Thomas Harley in the first round. The Stars continued to hit in 2020 with top prospect Mavrik Bourque in the first round (many believe he will be a key addition to next year’s team) and in 2021, they selected Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven, a pair of youngsters already scoring goals in the playoffs. What fortune!

If that wasn't enough from a single draft, in 2021, Nill had traded down in the first round to acquire an extra second and fifth round pick. With that extra second-round pick, they selected a player named Artem Grushnikov.

He has yet to play in the NHL, so you may wonder why the hell I am so excited about that guy? Well, he was the player sent to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Chris Tanev, the all-star defenseman who has shored up the Dallas blue line. I absolutely love Chris Tanev’s addition to this team. How can you not?

Under Nill's guidance, the Stars have constructed a deep roster with a lethal combination of veteran savvy and youthful, homegrown high-level skill, speed and energy. Nill has kept the right players who were on the roster before his tenure, such as Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell and Radek Faksa, and has supplemented those players with high-quality draft selections of his own.

Sure, NiIl is a gifted talent evaluator. As proof, he won the NHL's Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year award in 2023 and is a finalist again this year. But his players also speak highly of him in a way that transcends simple hockey knowledge.

“Pretty much every single free agent that we’ve brought in here in the summers, the ones we’ve signed — and even the ones that didn’t sign — have talked very highly about Jim Nill and how great a person he is, such a great hockey mind,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said to Defending Big D in January. “Guys want to play for people like that.”

Nill's greatness is evident not just through the draft. There have been some impactful and fruitful free agent signings as well. Joe Pavelski has been a massive part of what the Stars have done the last few seasons, for a prime example. He was signed as a unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019 and is in his fifth season with Dallas. Matt Duchene, signed  just this past offseason, has been a key addition to give the Stars more scoring depth. Signings like Sam Steel and Craig Smith have given the Stars grit and depth on the fourth line that have helped tremendously.

The evidence of what Nill has built is everywhere you look when watching this team play. As Dallas battles in the Western Conference Finals against Edmonton, there are 16 Stars who have scored a goal in the playoffs and 21 players who have registered at least one point. That's a sign of nearly unbelievable depth. Goalie Jake Oettinger has shown, once again, that the higher the stakes, the bigger he plays. Before the start of this current series, the Stars became the first team in the expansion era (since 1967) to defeat the previous two Stanley Cup champions in the playoffs in the first two rounds.

The Stars now continue down a historically difficult Stanley Cup path, facing a team with the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Connor McDavid. Edmonton also has the top four playoff point scorers, including the leading playoff goal scorer in Zach Hyman.

But, fortunately, the Stars have the reigning General Manager of the Year in Jim Nill, who has spent the last few seasons constructing a roster built for this exact moment. It's a roster that could finally allow long-suffering veterans like Ryan Suter, Joe Pavelski and Matt Duchene, who have all played over 1,000 NHL games, a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Matt McClearin co-hosts The Invasion on 1310 The Ticket from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays. Visit him on X (@McMattRadio).
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Dallas Observer has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.