The Dallas Stars have been without Jason Demers for two games now and, by all accounts, will be missing the second-pairing defenseman for the rest of the regular season after he suffered a shoulder injury in the loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
To be fair, those two games went almost as well as fans could have hoped, save some sub-par goaltending from Antti Niemi against the St. Louis Blues. But with a defense made up of just a single player who played more than 50 games for Dallas in the 2014-15 regular season in those games, there has been a lot of holding of breath every time the puck is in the Stars zone.
Some of that will be addressed with the return of John Klingberg and Jordie Benn, who have shorter-term lower-body injuries.
It still begs the question what exactly the Stars lost with Demers, who has spent the vast majority of this season on the second pair with Johnny Oduya. Since being acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Brenden Dillon last season, Demers has been a defensive mainstay in difficult matchups and zone starts as well as the penalty kill.
The Stars defense has featured 11 players so far this season. Five of those - Demers, Oduya, Patrik Nemeth, Esa Lindell and Kris Russell (in a very small sample size) - have started more in the defensive zone than the offensive one, indicating they are the players the Stars lean on to keep the puck out of the net. Nemeth and Lindell have received those minutes against relatively less difficult competition, which leaves the second pair and the newly acquired Russell.
Of the five players with defensively-oriented zone stars, Demers has the best Corsi For % (or shot attempts percentage if you prefer that terminology) at 54.13 percent. Including all defensemen, that's third best on the team to Klingberg and Alex Goligoski.
Demers also has the fourth-best points-per-60 rate on the team at even strength at 0.92 behind the first pair and Russell, and he's in similar company when it comes to scoring chance ratios.
That's not to say he's had a perfect season at even strength. He's struggled a bit in terms of the ratios of high-danger scoring chances (likely related to the more difficult zone starts), and of course he's got the worst penalties drawn/penalties taken ratio on the team, a problem that has been exacerbated in recent weeks.
When not in the box, he has been one of the Stars most trusted penalty killers, averaging more time per game on that unit than any player other than Oduya. And in those minutes, he's been one of the more successful of the regulars at preventing scoring chances.
For a defense that's as inexperienced, especially playing with each other, as the Stars, there's no question that Demers injury is a significant loss. But a surprising candidate has emerged to step up and fill some of his role in the past two games.
Really, you couldn't designed a defenseman much more optically different than Demers than Kris Russell. While they're about the same age (Demers is 27 and Russell 28), Demers is a solid 6-foot-1, 195 pounds while Russell is listed at a probably generous 5-10, 170.
Russell has played mostly with Goligoski more than Oduya in the two full games without Demers available (though at times Lindy Ruff has rotated five defensemen because he clearly doesn't trust Jamie Oleksiak with big minutes), but the Stars have used the Russell-Goligoski pair in tough situations. Against the Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, Russell had a zone start percentage of 12.5 with Goligoski at 22.22.
That's a little surprising given the book on Russell when the Stars acquired him - a puck-moving defenseman who was really struggling in his role on a bad Calgary Flames team. Perhaps, people though, the Stars would use him as a more sheltered third-pairing defenseman to take advantage of his veteran skills while not putting him in positions to fail.
But in difficult minutes in the past few games, particularly since the injuries to Demers and Klingberg (which both opened up the spot next to Goligoski and on the Stars first power play unit), Russell has been among the Stars best defensive defensemen in first-pairing minutes. It's a very short-term swing right now, but if he's able to continue this type of play with the Stars, it would go a long way toward alleviating the loss of Demers.
As for the other newcomers, Stephen Johns has been intriguing but a bit inconsistent in his first two NHL games (an entirely expected outcome for a rookie jumping right into a division title race), and the coaching staff doesn't trust Nemeth or Oleksiak in difficult minutes after those two had repeated struggles in those areas earlier this season.
If Russell can keep up his personal defensive renaissance, or if Johns gets over his rookie jitters quickly and settles in, the Stars will be in a much better position to deal with the Demers injury than was originally thought.