- Craig Custance
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jim Nill is one of those guys with encyclopedia-like knowledge of every prospect playing hockey across the globe. He's the guy, if you spot him at a junior game or some international tournament, you engage in conversation just to tap into his knowledge. Maybe learn a thing or two to make you sound smart down the road.
Because if Nill likes a player, chances are he's going to pan out.
"He's got tremendous gut instincts," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when I was compiling the annual list of assistant GMs ready for a promotion. Nill was No. 1.
He'd been running the Red Wings' draft for so long, even he couldn't pin down exactly how long in his introductory press conference in Dallas.
"I've been very fortunate in my position in Detroit to run the amateur draft for the last 15 to 18 years," he said.
And he's been able to help build a team that never misses the playoffs. The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs, he was playing for them, not managing.
When Detroit opens its 22nd consecutive playoff appearance in Anaheim tonight, Nill's impact will be all over the ice. Detroit's home runs late in the draft with stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are well-documented and Detroit's home-grown goalie is probably the biggest reason the Red Wings made the playoffs.
Jimmy Howard, a Nill pick in the second round of the 2003 draft, was spectacular for the Red Wings this season. Nill grabbed Howard after Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford were the first two goalies taken and off the board. The next 10 goalies selected in that draft didn't crack the NHL.
But whether or not the Red Wings make a playoff run may hinge on the postseason performance of the next wave of Nill draft picks and signings.
Rookies Gustav Nyquist (fourth round, 2008) and Joakim Andersson (third round, 2007) played important minutes up front for the Red Wings, while rookie defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser will be asked to play a big role in slowing down the potent Ducks offense.
Nill's close relationship with DeKeyser and his family no doubt helped the Red Wings land the college free agent when every team in the league was recruiting him hard.
So when Nill was asked about his philosophy, he answered that he likes smart hockey players. Guys who play hard and have size to compete with the big teams in the West.
And then he delivered the line that explains exactly why this was the perfect hire for the Stars.
"The biggest part of this game is drafting and developing, and we're going to be the best at it," he said.
On Monday night, the NHL held its draft lottery, and the Stars slotted into the No. 10 overall pick in the first round. It immediately becomes the highest pick Nill gets to work with in his front-office career. The moves Joe Nieuwendyk made at the trade deadline helped stockpile draft picks, and owner Tom Gaglardi mentioned the 10 draft picks in June's draft as one of his reasons for optimism moving forward. Dallas' current director of scouting, Les Jackson, is wildly respected in the game and has helped replenish the Stars system with some good young talent under Nieuwendyk's guidance. In assistant GM Frank Provenzano, the Stars have one of the game's best capologists and hockey minds.
Gaglardi is building a strong team in Dallas, with Nill the perfect man to guide them all.
"The future is very bright," Gaglardi said. "It's a matter of having someone in here to manage the process."
There's certainly some question about the coach moving forward. Nill said he hasn't made any decisions regarding the future of Glen Gulutzan, who did an admirable job rallying his team into the playoff hunt after veterans like Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow were traded at the deadline.
One word owner Gaglardi mentioned often during the press conference was experience. That's what attracted him to Nill, and it's easy to wonder if he'd want a more experienced coach in place as well to shape the young talent on the way in Dallas. Lindy Ruff is a coach on the market with loads of experience and, like Nill, has Team Canada ties. They're also both natives of Alberta.
Nieuwendyk's biggest mistake was firing head coach Dave Tippett, and, as it turns out, Tippett's contract expires after this season. Depending on what happens in Phoenix, he could leave the Coyotes and become one of the hottest free agents of the summer.
But that's pure speculation. Nill said his next step is to meet with Gulutzan and go from there.
"I'm going to sit down with all the staff," Nill said. "We're not going to rush into everything. I've been sitting on the outside; I need to sit on the inside."
He's patient, fair and ready to start building something special in Dallas, ending years of mediocrity and returning the franchise back into the Western Conference power it was when it won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
"There's some hard decisions that need to be made by those with tremendous experience," Gaglardi said. "That's why Jim Nill is here."