The Dallas Stars won their third game in four tries Tuesday in Vancouver, shutting out the Canucks, 2-0, on the strength of a 27-save performance by goalie Kari Lehtonen.
There remains, however, a big gap for the Stars (12-13-5) to close in order to get back into a playoff spot — a surprise to the many pundits who were predicting big things from Dallas in 2014-15.
Just don’t count the team’s general manager, Jim Nill, among the shocked.
“Not surprised,” Nill told PHT Tuesday morning. “We had a great finish last year, found our identity, made a couple of trades. And the media hype, the player hype, everybody’s like, ‘Here we go.’ Well, it doesn’t happen that easy. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back.”
Despite the victory over the Canucks, the Stars’ puck-management issues were apparent throughout the game. Only Lehtonen could keep a number of glaring turnovers from costing his team.
That was rookie Jyrki Jokipakka with the giveaway to Jannik Hansen. Jokipakka, 23, is one of two rookies on the Dallas blue line, the other being 22-year-old John Klingberg.
While Nill remains optimistic about the future of his largely inexperienced defense, he concedes the Stars might have to take their lumps in the present.
In November, Dallas traded veteran Sergei Gonchar to Montreal, opening up a roster spot for a young d-man.
“I kind of chuckle,” said Nill, “because when you’re struggling with the older guys, they’re like, ‘Let’s get the younger guys in and see what they can do.’ Now you get the younger guys in and they’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know there’d be this many mistakes.’ That’s the growth curve. Those things are going to happen.”
When Nill was hired in April of 2013, plucked from Detroit where he’d been with the Red Wings organization for nearly two decades, he knew he first needed to address the center position. In the short time since then, he’s added Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, in major trades. Both players are under contract through 2018-19.
Knowing the difficulty of adding a star defenseman in a trade, Nill is hopeful that what the Stars already have in the organization — including prospects Julius Honka, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Ludwig Bystrom — will be the answer for the blue line.
“We’ve got four or five good young kids, a couple more over in Europe that are coming over,” he said. “Now, are they going to be that No. 1 or No. 2 guy? I don’t know. We’ll see how they evolve. … If they are those type of players, great. If not, we’re going to be like everybody else and try and add that No. 1 or No. 2 guy. Not easy to do.”
In the meantime, it’s a matter of sticking to the plan.
“We’re a bad business in that patience isn’t a word we hear a lot,” he said. “We all start out with it, but then we lose it kind of quick. You can’t rush young players. Some guys develop quick. Tyler Seguin’s 23; now he’s one of the leading scorers in the league. That’s quick.”
Others take longer. Like 22-year-old goalie Jack Campbell, the 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft, currently with the AHL’s Texas Stars.
“Jack’s developing well,” said Nill. “He’s still a young kid. Because he was a first-round pick, everybody’s like, ‘Jeez, why isn’t he up here? Goaltenders take a long time to develop. He’s a young kid. He’s going through the highs and lows. He’s on the right path and we’re not going to rush him.”
All that said, Nill isn’t ready to write off the season. He may preach patience for the good of the future, but he expects better results in the now.
“I don’t think we’re as good a team as everybody had us, but we’re not as bad as where we are,” he said. “We still…we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s our goal. We need to go on a run here.”