That said, Nill also knows how tough it is to assess 17- and 18-year-olds and help them become players who can form the core of a winning team. That’s one of the reasons he knows that loving the draft has to be taken with a grain of salt.
“Drafting is not an exact science,” Nill said. “You’re dealing with humans, and that means a lot of things can happen.”
It has for the Stars.
Going back before Nill’s time, the team missed on first-round picks Scott Glennie (eighth overall), and Jack Campbell (11th overall) while hitting on Jamie Oleksiak (14th overall) and Radek Faksa (13th overall). In Nill’s first two seasons, you could say that Valeri Nichushkin (10th overall) and Julius Honka (14th overall) didn’t really deliver the expected value. But then you look at a lineup that includes homegrown first-round picks in Jason Dickinson (29th overall), Denis Gurianov (12th overall), Miro Heiskanen (third overall), Jake Oettinger (26th overall) and Ty Dellandrea (13th) and you realize just how much this team has been built through the drafts.
“I give Jim Nill and the scouts a ton of credit,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “A big part of having depth is having young players who can come in and help, and we have that.”
Oettinger recorded his first NHL goaltending win last week. Dellandrea recorded his first NHL goal. They are 22 and 20. Heiskanen led the team in playoff scoring. He’s 21. Gurianov is 23, Hintz is 24. That’s important.
Nill said that finding the right talent and then allowing that talent to ripen is a combined effort. He credited the player development team led by J.J. McQueen and Rick Peverley, as well as the minor league coaches.
“Our scouts have done a good job drafting, and I think our developmental team has done a really good job,” Nill said.
In fact, Nill said he likes where the team is at in both age of the roster and in contract levels, which are so important in a salary cap system. By keeping waves rolling, it gives Dallas the chance to imagine a team that’s good for years. Players like John Klingberg (fifth round in 2010) and Esa Lindell (third round in 2012) add to the first-rounders to show that value can be found throughout the draft.
“You had the one group of guys with the Lindells, the Klingbergs, the Faksas, the Oleksiaks, and that was really important for us,” Nill said. “Now, you have a different group with Heiskanen, Hintz, Gurianov, Dellandrea, Oettinger, (Jason) Robertson. We feel we’re in a good place, but again, you have to go do it and you have to continue to work hard to improve.”
Nill said you have to expect that some players aren’t going to work out, but you have to do as much as you can to help every player. Nichushkin played more than 200 games in Dallas, but was eventually bought out and signed with Colorado. He is a regular on the Avalanche and scored 13 goals last season. Honka has played 87 games with the Stars, went back to Finland, and now is back in the Stars organization on the travel squad.
Those aren’t exactly success stories, but Nill said it just underscores how difficult it is to make things work.
“Everybody wants to compare one person to another person, and you just can’t really do that,” Nill said. “We’re all unique, we all learn at different speeds and in different ways. Some guys get physically mature earlier than other guys. I see all of the time that a player gets compared to a player who was drafted near him — `Why is he in the NHL and your guy isn’t in the NHL?’ Well, maybe he’s not ready yet. Maybe he develops at a different speed. You just can’t get caught in that trap.
“Every player is different and you just have to stick with the plan you have for your guy.”
And it’s not just the media and fans who get caught up in the debate. Players too have their own ideas on how they should develop.
“The players aren’t patient either,” Nill said. “I don’t blame them. They want ice time and they want to be a part of it. I get that. But it’s a process.”
Oettinger is in an interesting place. The Stars have Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin under contract for three seasons (including this one). Oettinger got his first start because Bishop is out for much of this season with a knee injury. As such, the schedule for the rookie netminder was accelerated.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me personally, I wanted to get here as quickly as I could,” Oettinger said of the pressure that comes with being a first-round pick.
“You never know when you’re going to get your opportunity. I’m trying to make the most of this chance right now. I think when you get drafted it’s a special feeling and a cool moment with your family and friends, but you still show up day one with no expectations and you’ll have to earn everything you get. It’s my job every day to earn being on this team.”
Nill said that looking at the Stars roster now, he likes the positive stories. Klingberg went back to Sweden for a year of seasoning. Hintz and Gurianov logged time overseas and then each had several seasons in the AHL.
“We have so many good examples that it takes time. John Klingberg was here and he told me he felt he needed to go back and play one more year in Europe. So he went back and played another year, and he was right,” Nill said. “Then, you look at guys like Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. They had to really work hard in the AHL to move up. Once they did, they were ready for it.”
Oleksiak battled for five seasons to become a regular in the Stars lineup, and never really earned the trust of the coaching staff. He went to Pittsburgh for parts of two seasons, and after returning to the Stars, he’s now a top four defenseman playing beside Heiskanen.
It’s just another example that everyone’s path is different.
“That’s part of the process,” Nill said. “It’s tough to make the NHL, and a lot of things have to go right. Maybe it’s timing in the organization. Maybe they’re not the right fit with coaches or teammates or position. There’s just so many things there.”
Dellandrea, Oettinger and Robertson are going through their transitions right now. Thomas Harley (18th overall in 2019) is hoping he might get some AHL time this season. They will hopefully be able to help keep the Stars rolling in homegrown talent for years going forward.
On any given night, the Stars could have 13 players in the lineup who they drafted. On any given night, seven of those could be first-rounders.
“We’re kind of reaping the rewards right now,” Nill said. “We’re getting a push of young guys coming in together, and that’s important if you want to keep getting better.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.