Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill met with the media via Zoom on Thursday morning to answer questions about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the upcoming free agency period, and the 2020-21 season. It was an informative session that generated plenty of new storylines for the offseason.
When asked about whether the mass of injuries suffered by his team were a main factor in the loss following Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, Dallas Stars head coach Rick Bowness was quick to answer.
“Anyone who has ever won the Stanley Cup will tell you that to win the Cup, you’ve gotta be lucky and you’ve gotta be healthy,” Bowness said.
That quote effectively did two things. Firstly, it reiterated just how critical the absences of Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, Ben Bishop, and Stephen Johns had been in the Stars’ pursuit of winning the Cup against a loaded and talented Tampa Bay Lightning team. But it also spiked the curiosity of fans, media members, and hockey followers alike as to how many Stars players were injured and just how serious those injuries were.
Considering every injured player had been labeled as “unfit to play” throughout the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there was no telling just how badly banged up the Dallas Stars roster was by the end of the run.
On Thursday morning, Stars general manager shed some light on the team injury report in his end-of-season media availability.
It was pretty shocking.
Tyler Seguin finished the regular season with some knee issues, and those issues carried into training camp and the Return To Play. He also suffered a torn labrum in his hip during the postseason and is now talking with doctors and looking at options for surgery. The recovery timetable is set around four months.
“We’ll get that taken care of as soon as possible,” Nill said. “We don’t know the start of the season, so that’s why we want to get it done as soon as possible.”
With the NHL targeting a Jan. 1, 2021 start date for the 2020-21 regular season, Seguin’s four-month absence could mean that he misses the first two months of next year. But with no certainty that the season will begin on Jan. 1 yet, that is still up in the air.
“If he gets the surgery in the next two or three weeks, let’s say Nov. 1, four months means he would miss some time,” Nill said. “The tough part with all of this is that nobody knows the timeframe. The NHL announced Jan. 1. Let’s hope that is correct. For our whole world, that means that we’ve got this pandemic under control, which is the best thing for the whole world.”
And yet, Seguin still played through both injuries and only missed one round-robin game throughout the Stars’ run.
Stars captain Jamie Benn played through a shoulder injury that had been irritating him since the regular season. He had suffered the injury sometime prior to the pause of the regular season, but battled through it and was one of the six forwards to skate in all 27 games (round-robin and playoffs).
“I thought he had a great playoffs for us, but he did battle a shoulder injury that happened just before the pandemic hit,” Nill said. “I can’t say he’s 100 percent, but it’s got time to heal and he should be fine.
“Anybody who knows Jamie Benn, he doesn’t complain about this. His performance in the playoffs was as good as it’s ever been.”
Jason Dickinson played through foot and ankle injuries, and it was uncertain whether he would even be able to play in Games 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. But he still found a way to play in all 27 games.
“In the last two games, we didn’t think he was going to play,” Nill said. “He was getting shot up and couldn’t get his skates on.”
Roope Hintz was another forward suffering from lower-body injuries, specifically a fractured ankle that he sustained during the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. He was able to play through it until Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, when he was tripped by Tyler Johnson and collided awkwardly with the boards. That collision led to a hip injury that effectively ended his season.
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“Roope Hintz fractured his ankle,” Nill said. “He was getting that shot up, that happened against Vegas also. He got that shot up against Tampa Bay and then, unfortunately, when he got tripped and hit the boards, he injured his hip area and was not able to skate after that.
“We were hoping that with a little bit of the trainers working on him, he may have been available for Game 7. He still would’ve been very questionable.”
Blake Comeau separated his shoulder in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and missed the rest of the series. Radek Faksa broke his wrist in Game 3 of the conference finals and wouldn’t have been available even if the Stars had forced a Game 7.
And that’s just the forwards.
On defense, Esa Lindell played the majority of the postseason with an injured hand, but still managed to play all 27 games. Miro Heiskanen injured his hip against the Golden Knights, but played through it to log a full 27-game performance as well. John Klingberg only missed one round-robin game due to a shoulder injury sustained during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but played through it for the remainder of the postseason. Taylor Fedun also injured his knee during the run, but would have been available if he were needed.
Stephen Johns, who spent the majority of the past two seasons dealing with post-traumatic headaches and post-concussion syndrome, played in the round robin and Game 1 of the First Round before being deemed unfit to play for the rest of the postseason.
Nill said that Johns was not involved in a hit or anything physical that caused an injury, but that he simply did not feel comfortable playing after those first few games.
When asked about what it might mean for his future, Nill declined to comment further.
“I think everybody knows Stephen Johns’ situation,” Nill said. “Once again, I don’t want to put too much focus on him. We know what he’s dealing with, so let him work with his medical personnel. Will he be available? I don’t know. As you know, that’s kind of a moving target.
“He’s working with his medical people, and we’ll see where that goes. I really can’t comment on that right now. We know Stephen’s story and we’ll see where it goes from there. I really can’t comment on it anymore.”
In the crease, both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin were dealing with ailments. Bishop had knee surgery to repair an injury in late May, and Nill said that the injury didn’t have enough time to heal throughout training camp and starting up in the bubble. Bishop played in three postseason games, but did not feel comfortable enough to keep going.
“He did try to come back and play, but just did not feel comfortable at all,” Nill said. “In the end, we decided to just shut him down as the playoffs went on.”
Khudobin, who became the Stars’ full-time starter in Bishop’s absence, played in 25 of the Stars’ 27 postseason games and posted a record of 14-10 along with a .917 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average. Nill said that he had surgery on his arm on Wednesday.
“He had a numbness in his hands and it was just a nerve issue,” Nill said of Khudobin’s injury. “The surgery was successful and it was just a numbness that he had as far as holding his stick. The doctor went in, moved the nerves around, and everything should be fine.”
Nill reiterated throughout the injury update that there were a lot of players that were banged up and dealing with issues throughout the run.
And then came the rest of the news, information, and updates. After all, the Stars are only 10 days removed from Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final but have to prepare for the opening of Free Agency on Friday morning at 11 a.m. CT.
The Bench Boss
Before getting into free agency topics, another looming question was answered, this one pertaining to the man behind the bench.
“My plan is that Rick Bowness will be our coach moving forward,” Nill said. “I still need to sit down with him and work on everything else, but the plan is that he will be our coach moving forward.”
After being promoted from assistant to interim head coach on Dec. 10, Rick Bowness managed to take the Dallas Stars franchise further than it had gone in two decades. His 20-13-5 record in the regular season helped the Stars secure a top-four spot in the Western Conference and a guaranteed spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he took it a few steps further in the postseason.
Bowness helped the Stars navigate a loaded Western Conference playoff picture, picking up series wins against the Calgary Flames (in six), Colorado Avalanche (in seven), and Vegas Golden Knights (in five) before falling two wins short of the ultimate prize in the Stanley Cup Final. Along the way, he pressed a lot of the right buttons, transformed the team into an offensive juggernaut early on due to new strategies implemented in training camp, and had his team well-prepared to go toe-to-toe with each opponent.
To top it all off, he gained the respect and admiration of the team as he led them on a storybook run.
Nill said that it’s not official yet because he still needs to sit down with Rick Bowness and discuss specifics, but said that he expects Bowness to take the job in a full-time role moving forward.
“I’m gonna meet with him next week,” Nill said. “The plan is that I think he wants to come back and we want him back. He’s earned that. As I mentioned earlier when we were in the bubble, you watched how our team played. They played hard and as hard as any team in the playoffs. They were organized and you could tell that they were playing for the coach, and the coach loves to coach them.
“I’m very comfortable with Rick Bowness being our coach and I think with Rick Bowness, these are his players now. That’s the type of relationship he has, and as far as I know, he wants to come back. We’ll move forward with that.”
Free Agency Frenzy, But Also Not
As he has stated many times over his seven-year tenure as GM of the Dallas Stars, Jim Nill said that he likes where his team is at right now. When you win the Western Conference, you certainly should feel a level of comfort.
Even so, the Stars still have a number of questions to answer and boxes to check on their offseason to-do list when Free Agency opens on Friday morning at 11 a.m. CT.
First, there are decisions to be made on the status of some pending UFAs.
“Anton Khudobin, we’ve been negotiating with him, made offers, and have been talking,” Nill said. “We started those negotiations back in December. Then the pandemic hit, and then Anton came in and did a great job for us. We’ve had discussions with him.
“Right now with the way it stands, he would like to hit the market and see what’s out there. He’s 34 years old and this is probably his last contract, and I think he wants to see what the market is. I fully understand that and he’s earned that right.”
Nill also added that they would like to have Khudobin back because he’s a big part of the current team, but also understands the business side of it.
If Khudobin were to find another offer and sign elsewhere, Nill said that he is confident in Jake Oettinger playing backup to Bishop. Oettinger, a 2017 first-round pick, backed up Khudobin for much of the playoffs and got two periods of NHL hockey under his belt along the way. The 21-year-old is in line to be the Stars’ starter for the future and seems to be ready to take on the role.
Nill did mention that he will also look at an oversaturated goalie market in Free Agency as well and make the best decision for the team based on his analysis.
“We hope it’s Anton Khudobin and we want him back because he’s a big part of our team,” Nill said. “But I understand the business if he gets something better from where he wants to go, I fully understand. If that’s the case, we’re very confident in Jake Oettinger and Ben Bishop, and we know that there’s also other options out there.”
Corey Perry and Mattias Janmark both boast an argument to be re-signed (and it isn’t out of the question just yet), but Nill alluded to the idea that it may end up being tough and ultimately impossible to fit them under the cap after extending Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov, who are all RFAs.
“I’ve talked to agents for both of them, and right now, they’re going to look at the market,” Nill said of Perry and Janmark. “We have Radek Faksa, who has arbitration rights, he’s probably a priority to get signed right now. I’m working with him and his agent to get him signed up, and then I have Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov that I have to get signed. Until I get those guys signed and know what the numbers are, that’s kind of where we’re at right now.”
At the moment, the Stars have just above $13 million in projected cap space. Faksa, Gurianov, and Hintz could eat up a little over $10 million of that space, and potentially adding a backup goaltender into the mix could have them right up against the wall.
And while Perry and Janmark provide a certain number of intangibles with their play, Nill is confident that the younger players in the system – specifically those that were in the bubble with the Stars – will be ready and able to fill the void.
“We’ve got some young kids pushing from the bottom,” Nill said. “I get back to the experience they had in the bubble. It was a great opportunity and a great experience for the Robertsons, the Caamanos, the Dellandreas and these guys to get experience. Some of them got into games, but every day, they were practicing with the team and watching the team go through the highs and lows.
“The experience that they got was unbelievable.”
That’s where names like Ty Dellandrea, Jason Robertson, Nick Caamano, and Thomas Harley could play a pivotal role in Dallas next season as the Stars try to build on the success from this season.
And so, what does all of this mean for Nill’s overall approach to the free agent market?
“Overall, I’m very happy with where we’re at,” Nill said. “I like the core of our team and I like the young players that are knocking on the door. I’m approaching this free agency – you mentioned the goalie and we’ll keep an eye on that; but other than that, I’m just going to kind of sit back and see where everything is.
“If there’s something that makes sense, we’ll look at it. If there’s a trade that makes sense, we’ll look at it. But I’m very happy with our team and where it’s at. I think this organization is in a great position right now with the mix of the team. Friday at 11 a.m., I’m not diving in right away to look at something.”
Nill has been given the green light from ownership to spend up to the salary cap (though he mentioned that he must do it responsibly) and confirmed that the team will not be buying out any players this offseason. That could lead to one or two additions from the free agent market, but with the way the Stars’ cap is currently set up, the team’s opening night roster for the 2020-21 season may be solely comprised of players within the organization.
All in all, the Dallas Stars are setting up for another busy offseason. But, unlike in summers past (it’s still baffling to remember that this offseason is taking place in autumn), the busyness is largely in-house.
It’s a quick turnaround after a memorable and storybook run through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Stars seem well-positioned to tackle this offseason and get back to building on the most promising season for the team in recent memory.
“I think we should be very proud,” Nill said of the 2019-20 campaign. “I’m so proud of what our team did and we played up to our expectations. Something that’s kind of forgotten in all of this is, I know we got off to a terrible start at 1-7-1 at the start of the year; after that, I think if you look at our record from the first of November on, we had one of the best records, if not the best record in the NHL.
“This isn’t a one-and-done situation. We had a good team and we have some great stories as far as young kids doing their job and veterans stepping up when they had to. Our goal is to be as good as we can be and make the playoffs. Once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. We just witnessed that. I think we’re in a good spot.”