If you can't beat 'em with quality, you can at least beat 'em with quantity.
The notion that the Dallas Stars need to acquire a number one defenceman is a popular idea that's been around since Sergei Zubov left the team in 2009, but it's also one that has lost a lot of steam in the last year.
Realizing that number one defencemen are more rare and elusive than facial expressions on Jonathan Toews, the Stars' front office has instead been steadily warming up to, and building around the idea of, "defense by committee," as it were.
With Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley emerging as a reliable top unit by the end of last season, the duo of Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn performing solidly despite tough minutes on the second unit, and a handful of different players now tightly competing for the two spots on the third pair, the Stars appear to be content with growing and grooming the defensemen already within the organization.
"I read things that Dallas needs a No. 1 defenseman but there are only eight of those guys in the entire NHL, and they are never traded," said Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi, as per the team's official website. "We’ve done a good job; we’ve set ourselves up for the future with our prospects. I think you saw that the way [Trevor] Daley and [Alex] Goligoski played in the second half of the season, I think for people to criticize our defense is flat wrong."
It's a strategy that worked to a reasonable degree last season, considering the Stars survived a brutal Western Conference and made the playoffs, but Dallas will need to see steady improvements from everyone involved if they hope to not only make the playoffs again, but to also reach that next echelon of teams in the conference.
One of the players that the Stars will need to see the most improvement out of, however, is sophomore Kevin Connauton.
Connauton made his NHL debut with the Stars last season, playing in 36 games, to mixed results. A fluid skater with a decent-sized frame at 6'2," Connauton possess a nice blend of physical attributes that make him an intriguing player, but struggled to put it all together during his rookie season.
An offensively-inclined defenceman by trade, he was a prolific point producer during his time in the Western Hockey League, and used his heavy slapshot to accrue an average of ten goals per season during his three years in the AHL. That production did not translate to the NHL last season, however, as Connauton only managed one goal and a total of eight points over the 36 games that he played. A large contributor to that, as should be noted, was his horrible 1.8% shooting percentage.
Here's video of his first and only NHL goal:
Defense has never been Connauton's strongest suit, which became a lingering issue that never really went away over the course of 2013-2014. Far too many times his coverage was blown or he lost key puck battles, and the results often ended up within the Stars' net.
In terms of advanced metrics it didn't look any better. At the time of this writing Extraskater.com is still offline, so exact numbers can't be accessed, but Connauton put up some of the worst possession stats on the team last season, despite playing against weaker competition and having favorable zone starts.
Now, all of that being said, at age 24 Connauton is still relatively young as far as NHL defencemen go. Blueliners take longer to acclimate to the pace and competition of the NHL than forwards do, so Connauton is still a few years away from the most likely prime years of his career. In Defending Big D's March 2014 Prospect Rankings, Connauton was ranked 9th, mainly because of the potential that he showed during his career in both junior and in the AHL, and that potential still certainly exists. And for an offensive-minded defenceman, Connauton was only given an average of 40 seconds of powerplay time per game last season. An increase in time on the man-advantage would surely create an uptick in point production.
Furthermore, he is under contract for two more years at a very, very cap-friendly salary of only $683,333 per season, which is certainly something that needs to be taken into consideration. He'll also still be an RFA at the expiration of this current deal, meaning that the Stars will retain his rights when it comes to his next contract.
The real question now is whether or not there will actually be room for Connauton when that time comes.
He was a healthy scratch for the majority of his time in Dallas last year, and had trouble doing enough to stay on the roster when he did receive his chances. More telling, however, was the fact that Connauton was passed on the depth chart by another rookie, Patrik Nemeth, by the end of last season and the playoffs. Head coach Lindy Ruff clearly showed that he was more comfortable using Nemeth than Connauton during the team's first round series against the Anaheim Ducks.
At the moment, the Stars' blueline outlook for the start of 2014 appears to be these seven players: Goligoski, Daley, Dillon, Benn, Connauton, Nemeth and Sergei Gonchar. Out of those seven, Connauton once again seems the most likely to be the healthy scratch. It should also be mentioned that he is on a one-way contract, meaning that he would have to successfully pass through waivers if Dallas wanted to assign him to the AHL for the year.
Making things even more interesting is the push from below. The Stars have an impressive stable of other young defencemen that are very close to being ready for regular NHL duty, and each possesses at least one compelling attribute. John Klingberg is a powerplay specialist, and crucially, the only right-handed shot that could crack the roster. Jamie Oleksiak is a towering 6'7" and has the bonus of being a former 1st round draft choice. Cameron Gaunce is a steady, reliable defender with plenty of AHL experience, and put up notably better possession numbers than Connauton during the nine games that he played in Dallas. Jyrki Jokipakka has size and mobility, and has plenty of professional experience from playing in his native Finland.
With a lack of a true number one defenceman, the Stars will need to dress the best six or seven defencemen possible at all times in order to compensate. There is currently a very legitimate question of whether or not Connauton is one of those defencemen.
There is still time for Connauton to take that next step forward in his development and become a reliable impact player at the NHL level. That next step will need to happen soon, for the sake of both the Stars and Connauton's NHL career.