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Ted Kulfan's Stanley Cup Final preview: Can Jim Nill's Stars ground Lightning?

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit – Jim Nill was involved in a lot of success in his 19 years with the Red Wings’ front office, finding much of the talent that fueled the victories and championships.

Nill was part of four Stanley Cup winners and an organization that made a habit of making the playoffs.

The Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill

Now, in his seventh season as general manager with the Dallas Stars, Nill has that organization in the Stanley Cup Final beginning Saturday (NBC/CBC) against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There were lessons learned from Nill’s years in Detroit that he’s carried over to Dallas.

“Every day you came to work and learned something new,” said Nill during Stanley Cup Final Media Day on Friday, mentioning being able to work and learn from the likes of Jimmy Devellano, Ken Holland and Steve Yzerman, along with players such as Nicklas Lidstrom. “It prepared me for where I am now and I owe so much to those people. The way the Ilitch family operates their franchise, everything was first class. You respect people and we played the game the right way.

“I was very fortunate and happy to be associated with those people.”

Nill’s impact is noticeable, but also, don’t forget the impact of Yzerman, the current Red Wings general manager, on Tampa.

Yzerman was GM of the Lightning for eight years before moving into a consultant role in 2018, then leaving to replace Holland as the Wings’ GM for the 2019-20 season.

Yzerman’s handprints remain all over this current Tampa front office and core of the roster, as Tampa opens this Stanley Cup Final series.

Yzerman’s time in Tampa has been analyzed often, molding the Lightning into a premier organization.

Nill’s work, though, in Dallas has gone somewhat under the radar.

This is Nill’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance with Dallas, with a roster that he molded.

“This what we’re in the business for, you dream about being in this situation,” Nill said. “We still have one more hurdle to go through.”

Nill had opportunities to leave the Wings during his time in Detroit, opportunities in Calgary and Montreal, specifically coming to mind.

But for various reasons, they didn’t happen. Arriving in Dallas when Nill did, was probably, ultimately, the best for everyone concerned.

“I remember when I first got into this end of the business, you’re young, energetic, you’re ready to go,” Nill said. “You think you can tackle anything. (But) when I look back now, I had some opportunities maybe to go to other teams when I was younger, it was probably a good thing I didn’t, because I may have got eaten alive.

“It’s a tough business. You have to live the ups and the downs. You’re dealing with ownership, dealing with the media, players and agents. It’s a tough position and I was very fortunate to be put in the right situations to learn from great people and then to have the opportunity come to Dallas.”

Interestingly, Nill’s current head coach in Dallas, Rick Bowness, was an assistant coach when Nill was a player in Winnipeg, and the two crossed paths again in Ottawa when Nill was a scout and Bowness was head coach of an expansion Senators’ team.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman

Bowness isn’t surprised by Nill’s successful managing career.

“Jim has a passion for the game,” Bowness said. “When you see those things, you see a passion for the game, it’s usually those guys who move on to management, scouting. Am I surprised he’s a GM? Not at all.

“It always goes back to passion.”

Nill has been open about the battle his wife Bekki has had, and is having, with incurable breast cancer since 2011. Because of the coronavirus, Bekki Nill is quarantining at home and watching the grandkids.

But she’s never out of Jim’s thoughts.

“My wife is doing very well,” Nill said. “She’s a living angel. We’ve been very blessed. We all know we don’t know where our next breath is going to come from. But she lives the right way, treats people right and she’s in a good spot.”

Stanley Cup Final

Ted Kulfan's analysis

(2) Tampa Bay vs. (3) Dallas

Records: Tampa Bay 43-21-6, .657;  Dallas 37-24-8, .594.

Playoffs: Tampa Bay (Eastern Conference) — Round robin, 2-1; first round, beat Columbus in five; second round, beat Boston in five; third round, beat N.Y. Islanders in six. 

Dallas (Western Conference) — Round robin, 1-2; first round, beat Calgary in six; second round, beat Colorado in seven, third round, beat Vegas in five.

Storylines: The Lightning are returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2015, the Stars for the first time since 1990.

Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness was an assistant for Tampa’s Jon Cooper from 2013-18.

This will be the fourth consecutive playoff opponent Tampa has faced that finished top-10 in goals against (Dallas was second, 2.52).

Key player: Tampa D Victor Hedman. Hedman has nine goals in these playoffs, most among defensemen, and his ability to play huge minutes and neutralize opponents’ top scorers has been impressive.

Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan