When it comes to defensemen this season, the Dallas Stars found themselves at both ends of the spectrum.
Starting the season, and especially when injuries struck about a third of the way through, the Stars were woefully short of NHL veterans at the position, starting as many as three rookies during a stretch when Jamie Oleksiak came up to fill in alongside Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon. And injuries throughout the system meant the Texas Stars and Idaho Steelheads were scrambling to fill their defensive spots as well.
But as the season moved on, and particularly after the trade deadline moves, the Stars now find themselves with a glut of defensemen, particularly in Austin. Oleksiak, Patrick Nemeth, Kevin Connauton, Joe Morrow and Cameron Gaunce are all interesting candidates to start the season in Dallas next year.
Which brings us to Philip Larsen. The 6-foot, 190 pound defenseman is one of six NHL defensemen under contract for the Stars next season, and he will be a restricted free agent after 2013-14. But given the glut of youngsters behind him and his rather pedestrian play through large stretches of this year, he may very well have played himself into being the odd man out.
By nearly every measure, Larsen had a disappointing 2013 season. Injuries and a few trips to the press box limited him to 32 games, and he put up two goals and three assists with a minus-10 rating. That's the second worst plus-minus on the team behind Jamie Benn.
The advanced stats also point to him having a rough year. Larsen was highly sheltered in terms of the quality of competition he played against, seeing the vast majority of his time on the team's third pairing. But he wasn't able to take advantage of the easier minutes. He was the Stars second worst defenseman in Corsi On (the number of shot attempts taken by a team while a player is on the ice minus the number of shot attempts against) to Aaron Rome, and when that number is made relative to the quality of competition he faced, he was by far the worst defenseman on the team with a number almost double that of Jordie Benn's.
So what does that all tell us? Corsi is generally used as a measurement of the possession/offense a player drives while on the ice. Larsen, with his rather lithe frame, is ideally a puck-mover who helps get the puck up ice to create offense going the other way. But he was not able to execute that at the NHL level last season, spending too much time hemmed in his own end with a variety of partners.
This was most evident on the road, where teams were able to get better matchups against the Stars third paring. Larsen was minus-8 on the road this year to minus-2 at home.
His zone starts were middle of the pack for the team, but that's because Alex Goligoski got the lion's share of offensive zone starts as he was the primary defenseman the Stars relied upon to generate offense. And when Goligoski and Larsen were paired together earlier in the season, bad things often happened.
To Larsen's credit, he did play well in limited minutes when returning from his injury in mid-March, and he had one of the Stars rare power play goals from defensemen in an early-season loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has solid skills for a puck mover - when he has time to think, he makes a very good zone exit pass, and he started to show signs of better performance under forecheck pressure as the year went on - but those are baby steps forward when the Stars needed him to be taking leaps.
Some of that may simply be talent ceiling. Larsen is a small-framed guy (who hasn't put on much discernible mass over the past few seasons, though it's hard to tell with all the gear on sometimes) who was originally taken as a fifth-round pick in 2008. He's never been a huge point producer at any level, so it may be too much to ask of him to do that in the NHL. So the question will be if he's a small-framed guy who is not trusted in key defensive minutes and he's not a defenseman who they rely on to push the puck up the ice, what role are they looking at him to fill?
That brings us back to next season. This was Larsen's fourth season in the NHL, though the first was a mere two game stint. He had a relatively strong sophomore season after an average rookie one with 11 points and a plus-16 rating in 55 games. And while his minutes were still sheltered last season and he struggled a bit with Corsi, finishing sixth ahead of Adam Pardy, Mark Fistric and Dillon, it was a nice step forward.
But given the glut of young defensemen ready to make the jump, the Stars may very well have no more time for him to make a recovery step. Jordie Benn is an unrestricted free agent this offeseason, the only Stars defenseman to hit the free agent market. And while Benn may be re-signed as an organizational depth guy, he's unlikely to jump any of the highly-touted youngsters on their way up. That's one hole for a kid to fill.
The question for Larsen will be if the Stars are looking to bring two of the AHL players up to start next season, whether that's Oleksiak and Nemeth or Oleksiak and Connauton or Gaunce and Connauton or whoever. If they are, Larsen is an obvious target to move. They could also flip a more desirable defenseman for something valuable from another team, a center perhaps, but I'm not sure the Stars will want to move any of their better defensemen without getting defense back considering how many headaches they had in that department last year.
As we've seen all to clearly over the last several seasons, NHL-capable defensemen can be a very valuable commodity. Even with the glut of talented AHL blue-liners, the Stars may want to play things conservatively and have only one kid up in Dallas to start the season, leaving the more talented veterans alone and keeping Larsen around for if and when injuries and poor play strikes.
Even so, they're eventually going to be ready to move more of the kids up. Unless Larsen retakes his two steps forward next season, he's going to need to keep an eye over his shoulder.