Sergei Zubov's skates are not easily filled. The smooth-skating, slick-passing, chain-smoking Russian magician had Dallas Stars fans spoiled from 1996 to 2009, and ever since he left the NHL for the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg, Stars fans have been clamoring to find his heir. His impact is just now being fully understood by casual observers who are starting to realize that it's not normal for a defenseman to have that level of vision and hockey smarts.
Now this article isn't going to proclaim Philip Larsen as Sergei Zubov's replacement, compare their strengths and weaknesses, or put Larsen on a pedestal that he has yet to earn. It will, however take a look at some of the names that have come and gone since Zubov's retirement, and highlight why exactly I think Larsen has the tools at his disposal to surpass those names and earn himself a long term spot on the Dallas blueline sooner than later.
In him, they saw the raw talent and hockey sense of an NHL player... stuck in the body of a kid. Even at the age of 22, I'd expect to see Larsen get carded trying to buy a Diet Coke. He isn't a player in the mold of Nicklas Grossman or Mark Fistric who will defend their ice with brute force, but that really isn't a requirement for players like Larsen.
The Stars see him in the same mold as a Brian Rafalski or Kris Letang. Sergei Zubov and Niklas Lidstrom have been superb defensively, while seemingly never having thrown a single hit. Hockey sense, positioning, and a strong mental makeup can make up for a lack of size and physicality. The Stars feel Larsen can slide into that role in Dallas.
It seems as though Larsen has been "knocking on the door" for a few years now, and has had a handful of call-ups to give him a taste of NHL action. While he has never really seemed to disappoint, there has been a definite learning curve that we've gotten to witness. Every game he plays is a little bit better than the last, and he has now gotten to a level that warrants consideration even in a fully healthy lineup.
The patience the Stars have shown bringing Larsen along is exactly what will set him apart from the likes of Matt Niskanen and Ivan Vishnevskiy. Vishnevskiy was highly touted as a Zubovian defenseman that would step into Sergei's shoes and grow into the role of powerplay quarterback for this team. Rather than leaving him in the AHL to fully develop his talents, the Stars seemed to send him up and down at times, even if it meant he wasn't going to suit up. At times, it felt like the Stars were an unconfident chef, repeatedly opening and closing the oven just to see if dinner is ready yet, or if it's already burnt.
Contrarily, Matt Niskanen seemed to force the Stars hand. He came on very strong as a rookie, paired with Zubov himself, and looked like a revelation. It may have been too much too soon, because once his security blanket was out of the lineup, Niskanen began the steady decline that saw him shipped to Pittsburgh with James Neal. Niskanen played only 13 games in the AHL before becoming an important cog in the Dallas defense corps, and when he got overwhelmed, the damage to his confidence was too great to overcome.
With Mark Fistric back from suspension, and Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley back from the injury list, the Stars have some difficult decisions on who to play and who to sit from now on. While it's my personal opinion that Larsen has finally earned his spot in the lineup, and brings more to the team than someone like Adam Pardy, the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that a little more time in the AHL couldn't hurt the young Dane.
It's certainly better to over-season your youngsters than throw them into the fire before they're ready, but the most important aspect to this debate may have to do with retaining depth. In order to keep Larsen, you may have to expose another player to make room, diminishing our depth and leaving us a little more vulnerable when future injuries start to add up.
With Larsen suffering an injury against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, the decision may be put off for a little longer, depending on the severity of the injury, but the fact remains... when the Dallas Stars have a fully healthy lineup, it appears as though they have more than 7 NHL defensemen. It will be very interesting to see who sits and who plays, and who may be on their way to Austin or elsewhere because of it.
Which 6 defensemen would you dress, and which defenseman would be on the way out?