Johnny Oduya. (Getty Images)
The Stars know they’ve gotten even scarier offensively, but they believe they’re better defensively, too, after a summer of change.Give credit to Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. He always makes the summer interesting. His tenure in Texas kicked off with a bang in 2013 when he swiped Tyler Seguin in a summer deal with Boston, and he followed that up by prying Jason Spezza from Ottawa one off-season later. So what did the erstwhile Red Wings executive do for an encore? He snagged Patrick Sharp from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who happened to be in a perilous cap situation. The trade, which also saw blueline prospect Stephen Johns come to the Stars in exchange for veteran D-man Trevor Daley and agitator Ryan Garbutt, had been in the works for more than a month before the two sides came to a conclusion, and Nill was open in his admiration for trade partner Stan Bowman. “I have so much respect for Chicago,” Nill said. “That’s where we want to get to.”
But the Sharp deal was curious in that the Stars improved on a strength while weakening a need: Dallas had top NHL scorers Seguin and Jamie Benn (the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner) already in the lineup, while the defense was a middling unit even with Daley. Now the team’s most experienced defenseman was gone, but Nill didn’t seem too concerned.“We have lots of options,” he said. “We’ve got a good young core that will be in Dallas. I’m very comfortable starting the season the way we are.” Nill hedged the statement by noting that the team did still have a lot of cap space, just in case a veteran came on the radar. Sure enough, just days later the Stars plucked another former Blackhawk, defenseman Johnny Oduya, off the free agency board. “It’s a very fast team,” Oduya said. “They want to have the puck and create things. It’s very similar to Chicago.” Sharp echoed that in his praise of the Stars, a team he knew well as a division rival before he became a member of the Victory Green posse. It’s not hard to see the three-time Cup winner and Canadian Olympian (who won gold on the same 2014 team as Benn) as the finisher Spezza needs on his line, giving Dallas two incredibly dangerous scoring combinations. But Nill also praised Sharp’s leadership skills – and, given the social media trouble captain Benn had in the dog days of summer – that’s not a bad add. Almost lost in the Sharp and Oduya pickups was the early free agency signing of netminder Antti Niemi – a move that seemed curious since Dallas already had a No. 1 in Kari Lehtonen. Once again, this was an example of Nill getting creative, as he noted the Stars do quite a bit of travelling (only San Jose and Edmonton will cover more miles next season, according to bloggers Dirk Hoag and Jonathan Garcia of ontheforecheck.com fame) and have many back-to-backs. “I know Kari went into a lot of games (this year) where he was tired or hurt, but he had to go in,” Nill said. “We had no other option.” Niemi, of course, also has a Blackhawks background, and one of his new/old teammates was quick to point out the value he had not long ago, before he became adrift in San Jose. “I look back to 2010, and he was a huge part of that first Stanley Cup,” Sharp said. “He got overlooked because of all the other stars on that team.” Now, all the Stars have to do is navigate their way back into the playoffs with an unorthodox goalie tandem, some big-time scoring up front and a D-corps with some experience that will also have to get work from a youngster such as Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak. Sounds daunting in a division where Chicago didn’t even finish with home-ice advantage en route to the Cup, but the new guys are prepared. “It’s a new challenge and a new chapter,” Oduya said. “It’s going to be fun.” So far so good for the Stars, who l ed the tough Central division through Friday. This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.