During the second round of the playoffs Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak sat in the locker room at the Dallas Stars practice facility in Frisco, Texas and discussed the finer points of fighting in hockey.
The conversation consisted mostly of Nemeth picking Oleksiak’s brain on pugilistic battles, while the Swede put the exclamation point on the conversation when he proclaimed — jokingly — “I think I’m going to fight more, you think I can bring it back?”
While they may be joking about dropping the gloves, both defensemen are in the midst of a fight for a bigger role in the Stars organization after their development was mismanaged this past season.
Nemeth played 38 NHL games this past season, while Oleksiak only suited up for 19 in what essentially became a lost season for the large blueliners in their early 20s (Nemeth is 24, Oleksiak is 23), who were in the NHL’s version of purgatory.
Both were NHLers and collected NHL paychecks. And Dallas wouldn’t risk sending either player to the AHL, since the Stars feared another team would make a waiver claim on a young big-bodied defenseman with upside.
But at the same time Nemeth and Oleksiak spent most of their season watching from the press box. Neither ever really developed a rhythm and neither had a chance to really play through mistakes, which is a crucial part of development.
And when the Stars were exposed by a big and physical St. Louis Blues team in the second round it was already too late.
Dallas could have used a physical 6-foot-7, 260-pound or 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensemen in the lineup against St. Louis. However, coaches (who tend to be more conservative types) don’t have time to risk mistakes in the playoffs with a young defenseman that hasn’t played in almost two months.
So, how do the Stars avoid the same mistake next season with Nemeth and Oleksiak’s development?
Option 1: Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Kris Russell, and Jordie Benn are set to become unrestricted free agents.
The Stars could let all four of those defensemen walk, save cap space for Jamie Benn’s looming extension, and give bigger roles to Nemeth, Oleksiak, Stephen Johns, and Esa Lindell (who will be fresh off a World Cup appearance with Team Finland).
That would leave a young defensive core, but one that would have a chance to grow throughout the season with a veteran leader in Johnny Oduya.
Option 2: If the Stars decided to sign multiple pending UFAs, that would signal it’s time to punt on both players and move Oleksiak and Nemeth this summer.
Consider Dallas already has three blue line spots solidly entrenched for John Klingberg, Johns and Oduya, while the organization is high on giving Lindell an opportunity next season. Bringing back any combination of defensive UFAs would once again relegate Nemeth and Oleksiak to benchwarmer duty.
In that case it would be best for both the players and the organization to make a move. Flip Nemeth and Oleksiak at the draft for a couple of picks, and wash your hands of the situation.
Option 3: This is where the Stars decided between Oleksiak and Nemeth. Dallas re-signs one of their pending free agents, and makes a commitment to giving one of the big-bodied players a spot in the lineup.
Now, which one do you choose?
Oleksiak has the blue collar pedigree and behemoth size. Frankly, there are only so many athletic 6-foot-7 human beings in the world, and even fewer that can skate as well as Oleksiak.
However, Oleksiak is a mental puzzle that has to be put together. He needs playing time to progress and he needs to develop an aggressive, physical attitude that fits his bouncer-like frame.
Nemeth isn’t as large and has had injury (albeit very unlucky) issues in the past, but has the right mental makeup and played more games than Oleksiak.
While Nemeth needs to be more physical, he did have a 51.8 percent Corsi For in limited time this past season and has an underrated ability to move the puck, which would fit well with the Stars desired run-and-gun style.