Saturday, April 20, 2024 Apr 20, 2024
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It’s Time For the Stars to Exit Their Comfort Zone and Pay Up For a Defenseman

Dallas has gotten where it is by making cost-effective deals far more than splurging. But the rest of the roster is too good not to take a big swing to help the blue line.
Calgary's Chris Tanev is one of several high-end defenseman Dallas should pursue. Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Any smart buyer knows that you have to be willing to walk away when the price gets too high, and historically, Stars general manager Jim Nill has done just that. Recall the last time the Stars had a truly dominant regular season, in 2015-16, when they knew they needed a bit more help on defense (sound familiar?), and Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis was the ideal target. But Vancouver raised the price at the last minute (most likely due to the history between the two franchise owners), so Nill pivoted to Calgary, trading for Kris Russell instead. 

The Stars would later acquire Hamhuis as an offseason free agent, so Nill’s patience, as it so often does, got him what he wanted at a price he could stomach. But that didn’t happen until after the Stars fell to St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs following a Kari Lehtonen meltdown in Game 7 plus a Tyler Seguin injury that forced him to miss all but one game of their playoff run. That team used Russell as a fill-in for Hamhuis, but it’s hard to see another option for Dallas this year should it choose to eschew the top defensive targets at the March 8 deadline. 

Over the years, Nill’s favorite sort of trade has been one where the player he’s acquiring is undervalued, or where the selling team doesn’t have much choice. Seguin was the rarest of commodities in 2013, but Nill acquired a young superstar center on a bargain of a contract for what pretty quickly began to look like a steal. Jason Spezza vetoed a trade to Nashville back in 2014, only for Nill to swoop in and pluck him out of Ottawa for a similarly agreeable package. He got Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns in 2015 for an aging veteran and a fourth-line player, and Ben Bishop’s rights from Los Angeles in 2017 for basically nothing. Since then, Nill has brought in Matt Duchene, Corey Perry, Ryan Suter, and Joe Pavelski for nothing but a contract. They all chose to come to Dallas because of what Nill had done before they arrived. 

Heck, even in Nill’s biggest deadline swing, when he traded for Mats Zuccarello in 2019, he still managed to acquire one of the top players available at the deadline without giving up more than a couple of second-round draft picks. 

All that is to say, the GM of the Year award Nill probably has stuffed in a box in his garage has been earned many times over. 

Now, once again, the Stars need help on defense—even more so with the apparent injury to Nils Lundkvist on Thursday night against Nashville. Because this team is too good not to maximize its chances for success. It would be nothing short of a crime for a team sitting atop the Central Division with a world-class forward group and a goaltender finally rounding into elite form to fall short in the playoffs because it pinned its hopes on the same defense that couldn’t withstand Vegas last year. The catch is, if Dallas upgrades through the trade market, Nill may have to step out of his comfort zone and finally pay market price to do so. 

It’s worth noting that a big part of why the Stars are as good as they are is because of Nill’s process. They have not lost many trades under Nill’s watch, and that’s because of his thrifty brand of trade magic: persuading sellers he’s really not in the market for a big purchase, that he loves his roster and couldn’t bear to lose anyone, and that it’s up to the seller to sway Nill with a deal he’d be a fool to turn down. That’s how it has been, time and time again. 

Unfortunately, sellers also know this, which means prices tend to be high at the trade deadline. Players like Chris Tanev are going to be the subject of a bidding war, and that’s a game Nill has largely managed to avoid in his decade  at the helm in Dallas.

But as much as you have to like where the Stars are at, Nill can’t stand pat. Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley cannot do it on their own without a reliable second pairing, and Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpää proved themselves inadequate for that label against Vegas last year. The fact is, Nill is either going to find himself in a bidding war for someone like Tanev or Noah Hanifin or Sean Walker, or he’s going to shock everyone by going in a different direction. 

Goodness knows, he has done it before, though it hasn’t always worked out. Last year, with the playoffs fairly certain, Nill bolstered the middle-six forward group with Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi. The former was acquired for Denis Gurianov, whose time in Dallas had run its course, and Dadonov was a revelation last spring. Domi cost a second-round pick, but his impact was a mixed bag in the playoffs. 

This year, giving up two high draft picks à la the Zuccarello trade is a best-case scenario for a top-four defenseman, as that sort of player tends to fetch a pretty penny at the deadline, when all the pressure is on buyers to get that “final piece” before the Stanley Cup Playoffs kick into gear. Even worse, some teams looking for help on defense are even more sensitive to criticism than most, and thus more willing to pay high prices to assuage the anxiety of their fan base. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and their media cabal are not known for sitting back and taking their medicine, you may have noticed

Unsurprisingly, Toronto already tried to acquire Tanev earlier this year to supplement its thin defensive corps. Tampa Bay needs help with Mikhail Sergchev out for a while. Ottawa is gonna Ottawa, and Vancouver might have already hired someone to follow Nill around town and outbid him for his coffee at Starbucks, just out of spite. The point is that there are competitors for the services up for bid. 

If you’re looking for another Dadonov-like acquisition, one that comes out of nowhere but makes a lot of sense, Lundkvist could be a primary piece in that sort of a trade, just as Gurianov was. Of course, Lundkvist is a bit of an outlier himself, given that Nill spent a first-round pick to acquire him—a rare exercise of indulgence from the generally miserly general manager (GM²) when it comes to top picks. And Lundkvist’s health casts doubt on such a move anyhow, as it should. 

It’s almost cruel that the Stars have blue-chip forwards Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque sitting in the AHL (for now) while their defense is desperate for anyone with a pulse to help the NHLdepth. In a perfect world, the Stars would find a top blueliner on a team desperate for forward help, and the general managers would both be courageous enough to swap players. But GMs also live to keep their jobs (and don’t we all), so the betting money is that Dallas holds onto the top of its prospect pool for now. 

So with the market being what it is, Nill is either going to swing big with another first-round draft pick heading out of Dallas, or he’s going to take the biggest risk of all: not do enough.


Robert Tiffin

Robert Tiffin

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Robert Tiffin covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has worked for SB Nation as a writer and editor, covering the…

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