PHT interviews Jim Nill, who’s ‘not surprised’ by Stars’ early-season struggles

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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.”

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports