The Dallas Stars had a triumphant return to greatness in the 2015-16 regular season but went through yet another disappointing postseason, falling to the St. Louis Blues in the second round. They were so close, too, advancing to Game 7 where they broke under pressure and were eliminated after a 6-1 rout.
Sure, their goaltending tandem is not the strongest, but one cannot fail to recognize the role their defense played in such a meltdown.
The Stars’ defense was going through a transition last year. John Klingberg, just 23, was still finding his way as a franchise defenseman; Stephen Johns was still learning the ropes in his rookie NHL season — and only joined the team in February; and several other talented prospects failed to make the pro roster full-time.
In the meantime, some of Dallas’ veteran blue-liners just weren’t cutting it. Kris Russell, acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline, didn’t really seem to take off as a top-four guy for the Stars. Alex Goligoski, albeit a great possession-driver, at 30 years old was not someone general manager Jim Nill wanted to hand a lengthy, high-priced contract to.
So this offseason has been one of change and overhaul, as Nill traded Goligoski’s rights to the Arizona Coyotes before the 2016 NHL Draft even commenced. Then, he said good bye to Jason Demers, who had seen his minutes eaten by the young Johns.
Next, he decided to let Russell walk during free agency, choosing instead to replace him with a more defensive defender — one he was rumored to have been going hard after at the deadline — in Dan Hamhuis.
It’s no secret that Hamhuis wanted to stay in Vancouver, but he knew they were nowhere near contention and that at 33 years old, his chances of winning a Stanley Cup with the Canucks are virtually nonexistent.
He chose to sign on with the Stars for two years, which is safe for both sides (commitment-wise) and bolsters the team’s veteran leadership and defensive expertise.
Hamhuis will be the perfect complement to the offensively-elite Klingberg on the top pair, serving as the stay-at-home presence so the youngster can take risks in driving the offense. Oduya and Johns seem to be good a good match as well, but those four are the only guarantees on the back-end – the other two spots are mostly open for the taking, with lots of guys vying for them.
Jordie Benn, older brother of the Stars’ captain, and third pairing veteran just signed a three-year contract extension this summer. Then, Jamie Oleksiak, the 6’7″ former first-round pick, signed a new one-year deal.
Patrik Nemeth, having suited up for the Stars in parts of the past three seasons, needs to assert himself as a full-time bottom-pairing defender this coming season. The 24-year-old has been given several chances and has shown plenty of promise, but the younger, hungrier competition creeping up on him may phase him out entirely.
Finnish defense prospect Esa Lindell, standing tall at 6’3″ and having just had a promising 42-point campaign with the AHL Texas Stars, seems about ready for full-time action in the NHL. Of all the Stars’ prospects, he is the most NHL-ready in terms of his overall game and physical maturity, and he would fit perfectly slotting in on the left side, either on the second of third pair.
Here’s where the problem lies, though — the Stars won’t want two young guys playing together, so they may need to get creative. If both Oleskiak and Nemeth are outplayed in training camp and another inexperienced prospect like Lindell or Julius Honka cracks the opening night roster, they will need to spread the veterans out evenly across the six-man defensive unit.
At this point, that’s a scenario that seems likely. Honka, though just 20 years old, just finished his second AHL season, scoring 44 points in the regular season.
A former first-round pick, he has made good on the promise he showed pre-draft, establishing himself as a premier defensive prospect for the Stars. It seems as though he would grab the final spot over Oleksiak who, despite his incredible size, seems to be struggling to get acclimated to the NHL game.
So the defense for the Stars in will likely include (in no particular order) Hamhuis, Klingberg, Oduya, Johns, Lindell and Honka, with Jordie Benn and/or Patrik Nemeth as the extra(s). It will be Phase II of the defensive transition, with an upgrade in Hamhuis and some new rookies to develop into impact NHL defenders.
It’ll be fun to watch such a diverse, powerful defense give a boost to the team’s offensive juggernauts. Once again, Dallas will be the dark horse contender in the West in 2016-17.