When the Dallas Stars signed Johnny Oduya to a two-year contract on July 15th, it bumped the Stars' roster up to eight defensemen.
Since an NHL team carrying eight defensemen on a roster at a time is a bit unconventional, there was some thought that the Stars might not be done and would make another move to slim themselves down to a more normal seven defenders. This idea, however, was quickly put to bed by general manager Jim Nill:
Interesting from GM Jim Nill "We were planning all along to go into the season with 8 defensemen." Still think he'd move 1 for right offer.— Owen Newkirk (@OwenNewkirk) July 15, 2015
He also elaborated his reasoning as to why, citing a travel and injuries:
"We are set up that we can run eight defenseman. It’s not an issue at all. It’s a long year," he said, according to the Stars' official website. "When we started putting our team together for next year we knew we’d probably have eight defenseman. With the travel and injuries, I think the more defenseman you have, the better."
So, with Dallas seemingly set on carrying eight blueliners next season, how is the team going to manage that many bodies on the back end?
The problems with this plan are most obvious when you look at the personnel involved. Three of the players that are going to be in the biggest battles to get ice time are currently 23 years of age or younger: Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Jamie Oleksiak. All three defenders have long NHL futures ahead of them, but the more ice time they receive the more their development will be able to progress.
With all eight ready defensemen now in the mix how, then, will the Stars fit those players in six defensive spots?
Well, what if the team decides to make that seven defensive spots?
While the standard layout of an in-game roster is 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, you do occasionally see teams bucking that trend and instead using 11 forwards and seven defensemen. It's not an overly common phenomenon, but it does happen from time to time.
And, more importantly, it appears like it can work.
While it's hard to go back throughout NHL history to find examples of how often this sort of lineup structure was used, and how successful or not successful it was, we do have one recent example that showcases promising results: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning used this layout off and on throughout the season, but went with it more often than not in this year's playoffs. The results? Surprisingly effective, as the Eastern Conference Champions and Stanley Cup runner-ups had a record of 9-5 when using seven defenders, compared to a much worse record of 5-7 when using the normal six.
While that's certainly a small sample size, Tampa head coach Jon Cooper was quite confident in the effectiveness of the idea.
"Well, there’s a few reasons," Cooper said back in June about rolling seven defenders, in this article on NHL.com. "Some of it was matchup related, some of it was positionally, some of it was health related. Personally, I’ve run 11 and seven a little bit in my career; we did a lot last year, but this year not so much just because of the personnel we have.
"I think it gives you a different look, it gives you different options, I like having the extra defenseman there. I can go down the list of the different reasons why. It’s not just one. It’s a bevy of things."
If it worked for the Lightning, would it be worth trying for the Stars? It's not a crazy notion.
First and foremost, there would be a lot more ice time to go around for the young blueliners mentioned above, which would be the best thing for their development. Furthermore, they could be groomed into specialized roles, such as even strength defenders (Jokipakka) or key penalty killers (Nemeth and Oleksiak).
The downside of this tactic, of course, comes at the cost of the forward core. At this point it seems like one of Curtis McKenzie or Brett Ritchie will start next season in the AHL, but would both have to go down if the Stars relied heavily on a seven defendeman lineup? Would the Stars be comfortable healthy scratching players like McKenzie and Colton Sceviour on a regular basis?
This is, of course, all just speculation at this point. As Nill alluded to above, injuries can and do happen all the time. All it takes is one serious injury on the blueline and suddenly the Stars are back to a normal seven defenseman rotation.
But for how things shake out when everyone's healthy? That's going to be one of the most interesting storylines to follow starting in training camp and carrying on into the regular season.