For much of the season, and especially the playoffs, it appeared the Dallas Stars found the right balance of young talent and veteran leaders on its roster.
With young stars such as Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson offering a spark alongside the steady play from Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and the other more senior members of the team, Dallas had the pieces it needed to make a deep postseason run to the Western Conference finals.
But now with the 2022-23 season behind them — and key offseason dates such as the NHL draft and free agency approaching — the Stars and GM Jim Nill have turned their attention to how they can build upon this season’s success and further develop their homegrown core.
“When you play close to June 1, something good’s going on,” Nill said Thursday morning. “I would say we’re more fine-tuning. We do have the core in place.”
Nill’s focus over the next few months will be on free agency, the draft and making decisions around some of Dallas’ top prospects.
Most of the Stars’ impact players for this season are still under contract heading into next year. The most notable free agents include Max Domi, Evgenii Dadonov, Luke Glendening, Joel Kiviranta — who are all unrestricted — and Ty Dellandrea, who is a restricted free agent. Goalies Jake Oettinger and Scott Wedgewood signed multiyear deals last offseason. Joel Hanley is the only defenseman in rotation who is unrestricted.
But with only $7.3 million in salary cap space — and only about $4.5 million to work with while leaving a cushion for call-ups and future trades — the Stars aren’t given significant room to make big moves.
Nill said he’s examined the market and hasn’t seen many players who fit his team’s needs anyway.
“Other than a trade, right now, I don’t see anyone in free agency that’s going to take you from here to there,” he said, specifically about defensemen. “To say we’re going to add a $7 million defenseman, not going to happen, or anybody, anywhere.”
But many are eagerly waiting to see what the future will look like for players such as 22-year-old defenseman Nils Lundkvist, 2022 first-round pick Lian Bichsel, 2021 top prospect Logan Stankoven and 2020 first-round pick Mavrik Bourque.
“We have a lot of young players coming in, and they’re going to have to earn it,” Nill said. “We know we’re going to be a kiddy corps down below. It’s gonna be a young team. It’s a good thing to have. … We hope those players are going to come up and push these players here in the NHL for spots.”
Nill acknowledged the frustration he sensed from fans when Lundkvist didn’t play in the Stars’ postseason run. He said he was next in line if an injury had occurred.
Bourque was another player on deck. He was called up for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals but was ultimately scratched.
“The biggest step you’re ever going to make is from juniors, college or Europe to the American Hockey League, and Mavrik lived it,” Nill said. “We’re very happy with his development. We talked about game-time decision players, and he was one of those guys. That just shows where he took his game to.”
On top of navigating how he will lean on those prospects and add them to an already young roster, Nill has more decisions to make for the team’s future in a matter of weeks. The 2023 NHL draft begins June 28, but the Stars will be without a first-round pick as a result of the trade with the New York Rangers for Lundkvist back in September. Dallas also traded its third-round pick.
“Back up to the trade deadline, everybody’s beating the drums saying we’ve got to add to it, and you give up picks to do it,” Nill said. “In two weeks, I’m going to be sitting there and not doing much.
“I look at our first-round pick as Nils Lundkvist. What really made that one easier to take is he’s already turned pro. Whoever I draft in two weeks when I go to Nashville, pro is probably four years away. We had a chance to get a defenseman that is already developed.”
Nill said his strategy likely will be to take whoever is best available when the 61st pick comes around in the second round. He did say trading up is a possibility.
The Stars roster likely will look similar come fall. The strategy will be similar — continuing to grow their talent in house as they’ve done for years.
But Nill’s message Thursday was that while he hopes to make small improvements, he’s confident in the foundation he and his staff have built. After what their up-and-coming stars proved this year, he doesn’t feel too much of a need to mess with a good thing.
“We have one of the best dressing rooms I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “They came together. They played like they cared for each other. Now we get some more guys coming in — Thomas Harley, Nils Lundvkist taking that next step. We’ve got some younger players in the works — Bourque, Stankoven, Karlström. You get kids knocking on the door. Let’s see how it all comes together.”