The goodbye Ken Holland has been expecting the past few years has finally happened.
The National Hockey League’s Stars on Monday named Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill their new GM to replace Joe Nieuwendyk, who was fired Sunday morning.
“I think Jim Nill was ready to be a GM five, six, seven years ago,” Holland, the Red Wings GM and Nill’s boss the past 15 years, said in a phone interview Sunday. “Most of the teams that have made GM changes [during that time] have called to ask for permission to talk to Jim Nill.
“For a variety of reasons he’s chosen to stay but I know he wants an opportunity to be a manager.”
It appears Stars president Jim Lites, who once held the same job in Detroit, was able to sell Nill on Dallas, which narrowly missed clinching a playoff berth this season after trading veteran forwards Jaromir Jagr, Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy and Michael Ryder.
Nill, 55, spent 19 years in the Red Wings organization, including 15 as Holland’s right-hand man.
“He’s done everything that I’ve done,” Holland said. “I’m leaning on key people to make decisions and he’s my key person. I’m just the one that has made the final decision.”
Nill joins a list of notable people to leave Detroit in recent years. Former assistant coaches Todd MacLellan and Paul MacLean left for head-coaching positions in San Jose and Ottawa, respectively, while one-time Red Wings centre Steve Yzerman left a front-office position in Detroit to become GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Nill, who hails from Hanna, Alta., joined the Red Wings in the summer of 1994 as director of player development after working in amateur and pro scouting for three seasons with the Ottawa Senators.
Through the years, he has run Detroit’s farm system, overseen the assembly of its current AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., negotiated entry-level contracts for players leaving the junior and college ranks and worked closely with Holland in preparing for the annual trade deadline, entry draft and free-agent season.
In 1997, Holland handed over the responsibility of running the draft to Nill, who worked alongside Red Wings director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell and director of European scouting Hakan Andersson.
Nill, who in recent years had handed more draft responsibility to McDonnell, helped uncover several late-round steals like Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (210th in ’99), Johan Franzen (97th in 2004) and Jonathan Ericsson (291st in ’02).
“Jimmy knows people in the industry,” said Holland of Nill, who helped contribute to four Stanley Cup championships in Detroit. “He knows what’s gone on here in putting together [a competitive team] not only through drafting and developing but through free-agent signings and trades.
“He understands how quickly things move and the preparation that goes into the trade deadline, the entry draft and July 1 [free agency].”
Holland and Nill played junior hockey together in the mid-70s with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League. The St. Louis Blues drafted Nill in the sixth round (89th overall) in 1978 and the right-winger went on to play nine NHL seasons with St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Winnipeg and Detroit before ending his playing career in the 1990-91 season with the AHL Adirondack Red Wings.
“You need experience [to be an NHL GM] and Jim Nill had experience as a player,” Holland said. “Work ethic as well. You have to go to one-hundred fifty games a year, so you have to sacrifice time with your family.”
The Red Wings are expected to promote Ryan Martin, the current assistant GM of hockey administration for the Red Wings, to take over for Nill, a married father of two daughters and one son.
“I’m looking for somebody like Jim Nill,” said Holland when asked what his search for Nill’s successor would involve. “It’s experiences, work ethic, knowledge and gut instincts. It’s having a plan.
“[Nill’s] got experiences as a player. He’s got experiences in scouting. He’s got experiences in development. He’s got experiences negotiating contracts. He’s got experiences knowing people in the industry.
“He’s seen why we went for a long playoff run when we won the Cup in 2008 and why we were eliminated in the first round in other years.
“He’s more than paid his dues and is deserving of an opportunity [to be a GM].”