Before the start of last season the depth of defense in the Dallas Stars system was considerably thin. "Thin" being that they had a lot of guys that could be solid call-up options for injuries but not many that looked like they were ready for full-time play at the NHL level.
My, how that has changed.
At the end of last season, the Texas Stars, Dallas' AHL affiliate, had double digit amounts of defensemen for their playoff run. They ended the regular season with 11 different guys at the position -- generally, you dress up to eight for a game at a time. The influx came from guys coming onto the roster due to several trades: Cameron Gaunce, Joe Morrow, and Kevin Connauton were all acquired via various trades last season.
All of a sudden Dallas had a glut at defense, and competition for ice time was very real among the prospects in the system.
Connauton came in as a highly touted offensive-defensman prospect. He is a guy that can skate well and has a booming shot from the point, which comes in handy on the power play. The question mark on Connauton was that his defensive game and play in his own zone needed work. The development of that side of his game wasn't progressing to where many thought it should be, and he was shipped out as part of Vancouver's trade for Derek Roy. He finished the season in Texas with the most goals of all defensemen and second only to Jamie Oleksiak in total points.
The current Dallas roster has Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas, Brenden Dillon, Trevor Daley, and Aaron Rome all signed for this season. Jordie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak are expected to push for time at the NHL level this season. How can Connauton push his way into the lineup?
One thing that is missing is a truly offensive-defenseman from the current Dallas roster. Sure, Goligoski and Gonchar were both in the top 20 last season in points. Most of those came from assists, however, with each only tallying three goals apiece. If the forward group has problems with jelling to score goals at the beginning of the season, does the team take a flyer on Connauton to try to add some scoring punch from the blueline?
The answer will be highly dependent on how Connauton does at training camp. He will have to show defensive responsibility and prove that he can be trusted to not be a liability at the NHL level. He'll also need to contribute offensively to jump over other guys on the depth chart and push for playing time. That's a lot of pressure on a guy that is still fairly young at this position -- he played forward for the better part of his younger years.
Connauton also has to go through waivers to be sent down to the AHL. If he doesn't knock some socks off in the days leading up to the season opener, he may become a victim of his waiver status and the fact that this first year of his newly minted three year contract is a two-way deal.
However, even if that is the case, another year getting big minutes on a deep Texas team should give him plenty of time to make sure that his game is NHL ready. I'd expect him to be a full time Dallas roster player at the beginning of the following season if his development in his own end continues forward this season.