Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.
Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.
Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.
The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.
The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.
Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?
More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.
They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.
Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.
In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.
Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.
Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.
Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.
But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.
At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.
It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?
It is a question that is probably worth asking.
At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.
Now that we’ve said goodbye to 2017, it’s time to look ahead at what the hockey world will bring up for 2018. The PHT staff pulled out their crystal balls and have offered up three predictions each for the next 12 months. Please remember us when all of these come true.
• George McPhee stands pat at the trade deadline: The Vegas Golden Knights are exceeding everyone’s expectations but face an uncertain summer with a number of pending unrestricted free agents like James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron. While in any other situation, McPhee might deal them away for assets as the expansion club looks to build a consistent winner, they’re going to go all-in in Year 1 to make the postseason and increase the excitement around the team even more.
• Ken Holland moves upstairs: It’s almost perfectly set up for this to happen. The long-time Detroit Red Wings general manager is in the final year of his contract and his team is likely to miss the playoffs for the second straight season, which previously happened in 1982 -83. You also have Chris Ilitch taking over the reins of the organization from his late dad and looking to revamp the franchise. Holland doesn’t get fired, but gets the ceremonial “thanks for all the success, here’s your ‘senior advisor’ position.”
• The U.S. women recapture gold at the Olympics: Canada has won four straight golds since the Americans won the first tournament in Nagano in 1998. The U.S. has went home with silver three times, including a heartbreaking loss in Sochi in 2014. Kelli Stack hitting the post late in regulation will serve as motivation for the unfinished business the U.S. women have this time around. Plus, you can bet last spring’s pay dispute led to even tighter knit group, which will help them win gold again.
• The Pittsburgh Penguins miss the playoffs: The grind of two Stanley Cup runs will finally catch up to them. GM Jim Rutherford is trying to shake up his roster because he clearly feels like his team needs it. Whatever move he makes, I predict that it won’t be enough to get them in.
• Max Pacioretty will be on the move before the start of next season: The Canadiens captain is struggling, but he remains a bargain at $4.5 million per season. His contract expires after next season so to maximize his value, the Habs need to trade him soon. I’m going to go ahead and say he’ll be shipped to the St. Louis Blues in a package that involves top prospect Robert Thomas.
• Erik Karlsson will be a member of the Dallas Stars before the calendar shifts to 2019: I realize that saying Karlsson won’t be a Senator isn’t exactly bold, but picking the team he’s going to is! The Stars could use a boost on defense and landing the best one in the game is as good as it gets. Marc Methot and Karlsson will be reunited in Big D!
• The Predators win the Stanley Cup: Yes, I’m doubling down. When making this choice before the season, I assumed (dangerously, but successfully) that the Preds would add a key piece. They’ve really flourished with Kyle Turris, now giving them two strong scoring lines, two good-to-strong goalies, and Ryan Ellis permitting, two strong defense pairings.
• John Tavares re-signs with the Islanders: Now, I’m not saying that he’ll re-sign with the Isles during the 2017-18 season. He might even dip his toe in the UFA water, at least to test the temperature. But I expect Tavares to stick with the Isles. Now can they truly contend going forward? That’s a tougher question.
• Marc Bergevin gets fired: Just in time for him to dig an enormous hole for whoever takes over! That’s the problem with GMs who continue to make mistakes: there’s a “legacy” of moves for the next person to deal with. Montreal needs to pull the Band-Aid off now, before Bergevin trades them into further disrepair.
• Erik Karlsson is traded: Karlsson, seeing the rubble around him as the Senators continue to crumble, and after the Eugene-Melnyk-threatens-to-move-the-team debacle, decides he’s done in Canada’s capital and wants out. With his pending unrestricted free agent status, and with no choice but to find a return, the Senators trade him.
• Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup: Look, it’s a longshot, even given how good they’ve been, but why can’t the magic from the regular season spill into the postseason? They find a way to win games, they score a lot of goals and they have great goaltending (and apparent depth at the position). Perhaps it’s not that crazy of a thought after all.
• The NHL adopts puck tracking technology: In a world with pinpoint accuracy when it comes to GPS, the NHL makes the move to puck tracking, which eliminates the long wait times for goal reviews. Fans and scribes alike get a chance to look at shot statistics in a new way, looking at average shot speed, hardest slapshot in a game situation, etc.
• The Vegas Golden Knights will go deep into the playoffs: They are already on track to be the most successful expansion team ever, and they are not going to stop at regular season success. They are going to win a round in the playoffs, and maybe two. Their success right now is no longer just about hot percentages or strong goaltending like it was early in the year. There is still an element of that in there, but they are also legitimately good. It would take a monumental collapse at this point for them to even miss the playoffs, and there just seems to be enough here that they are going to knock someone off once they get in.
• The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens will make trades they will regret: Probably for very different reasons. The Penguins are having a miserable season and are in danger of missing te playoffs entirely after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. They lost a ton of depth over the summer, did nothing to replace it, and I can not see them going away without doing something this season to try and correct it. Maybe it won’t involve Kris Letang, but there might be a panic trade coming at some point. The Canadiens are in kind of a similar position, only worse. They are having a worse season and they might actually end up trading one of their core players in Max Pacioretty. At a time when his value is at an all-time low.
• Four players will top 100 points this season: I wrote about this a week ago but the slight increase in goal scoring this season has led to the potential return of a nearly extinct player in the NHL — the 100-point scorer. Right now there are a handful of players on track to hit the century mark and I think four of them will end up getting there. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Josh Bailey. What is most notable about this, aside from the fact they all might get there in an era where almost nobody reaches it anymore, is that they are two sets of teammates. There have only been five 100-point scorers in the NHL since 2010-11. The last time a set of teammates did it was Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in 2009-10. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin also did it in 2008-09. The last time two different sets of teammates did it in the same season? 1995-96 when the Pittsburgh Penguins had three (Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis) and the Colorado Avalanche had Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic.
As the Ottawa Senators prepare to head into their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night it is really difficult to imagine this is the same organization that was one game away from winning the entire Eastern Conference just seven months ago.
It’s taken a less than a year for all of the goodwill that improbable playoff run created among the team’s fan base to be almost completely wiped away.
And it’s not just because the product on the ice has badly regressed.
Actually, that is probably the least of their concerns at this point.
On a day that is supposed to be a celebration and a highlight of the team’s season — a home outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens!– the fan base is instead staging a social media rebellion against team owner Eugene Melnyk with the #melnykout hashtag on Twitter.
Pretty much every reply to every Tweet from the Senators’ social media team is being bombarded with that hashtag as fans voice their displeasure. On Saturday afternoon #melynkout was one of the top trending topics in all of Canada.
Just a quick recap of everything that has gone wrong in recent weeks to help get things to this boiling point.
Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, a generational talent, and a superstar that has played the past few seasons on a below market contract made some comments that indicated he would not be willing to take another hometown discount when his contract expires after next season. Given the team’s financials it is pretty clear that he already has one foot out the door.
The team, struggling on the ice and apparently desperate to make a move, is reportedly fielding calls on every player on the roster, including Karlsson.
General manager Pierre Dorion denied that claim and said all hockey moves go through him, not the owner. That press conference from Dorion included the anecdote that Dorion’s own son said the team’s “level of suckage is high.”
Then, on Friday night, on the night before the team’s outdoor game, Melnyk poured a bucket of gasoline on the tire fire that is his team and made some ominous comments about the team’s financial situation and future in Ottawa.
Melnyk is no stranger to bringing some less than desirable attention to his team. The whole forensic investigation surrounding the Matt Cooke and Erik Karlsson incident; the way he lost his mind in the wake of the Sidney Crosby/Marc Methot incident. But to make comments like the ones he made on Friday, on the eve of a major NHL and team event, and given everything else surrounding the team and his ownership at the moment, is astonishing even for him.
Oh, and the team itself is still seven points out of a playoff spot and sitting in 15th place in the Eastern Conference.
Given all of that it is really difficult to imagine a bleaker long-term outlook for any fan base in the NHL. Which situation can possibly be worse?
The only one that really comes close at this point from is probably the Detroit Red Wings, and that is strictly from a hockey standpoint. The Red Wings are a sub-par team saddled with a ton of long-term contracts, little in the way of young, impact talent and are in dire need of a rebuild but seem reluctant to actually go through with it. It might be a long time before the Red Wings are a factor in the Eastern Conference again, but at least they are not in danger of moving (or at least having that threat thrown out there). They don’t have an owner that fans are openly revolting against.
Even the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have some reason to be hopeful from a hockey standpoint (Jack Eichel in Buffalo; Arizona is struggling, but they have a ton of young talent).
But the Senators? What is the reason for optimism here?
They have a generational superstar that might be one of the finest players to ever play his position and it is only a matter of when, and not if, he is playing for another team.
The owner, seemingly unwilling to sell the team, doesn’t seem to respect his own fan base and doesn’t seem to have the funds to consistently put a competitive product on the ice.
If you are Senators fan, what can you possibly have to look forward to right now, whether it be for the rest of this season or beyond?