Julius Honka is a modestly polarizing figure for Stars fans. Many felt like he was a reach in the 2014 NHL Draft. Which he kind of was. Button had him going at 18. Hockeynews at 17. And Pronman had him within a nose hair's distance of the 2nd round at 29.
Stars fans have had to read scouting reports and postgame notes from AHL beat writers to find out more about Honka while dealing with watching Dylan Larkin and Robby Fabbri (who quietly and loudly torched Dallas in game 7) tear it up in the NHL. It helps explain why Honka is considered trade fodder by anyone pondering random trades for goalies and defensemen.
Except defensemen marinate longer than forwards. And nothing about Honka's time in the AHL should be cause for dire concern. As a teenager in a league that mandates teenagers can't play, Honka potted himself 31 points in 68 games in the 2014-2015 season. He was a -10. This season he tallied 44 points, and was a +1. At 20 years of age, he's getting better. Pronman has since called him a top four D. And he's vital to Dallas' core moving forward.
Stay Away From (Not At) Home
The first argument in favor of keeping Honka at all costs is this: stay at home defensemen are relics of the past. As forwards become quicker, defensemen need to match just enough of their speed to avoid getting burned. Thankfully Jim Nill understands this.
"Today's game is all about getting the puck out of your zone as quick as you can," says Jim Nill, the general manager of the Stars. "The quicker you can make a pass out of your zone, the less time you're going to spend defending.
Of the the last 30 Norris Norris Trophy winners since 1985, only three were taller than 6'1. Big, lumbering defensemen won't beat Jonathan Drouin on a dump in. And they have to have enough offensive instincts to make outlet passes that maximize support from one zone to the next. This is what makes Radek Faksa so good. When people say he's good defensively, they don't mean he's good in his own zone. They mean that he's good defensively because he knows how to optimize his time in the offensive zone (board work, cycling, neutral zone disruption), and minimize his time in the defensive zone. Hence why he has the 2nd best scoring chance differential of anyone on the team just behind Jason Spezza.
Some of the better defenders in the league excel by being able to stay away from home. Defenders like Jared Spurgeon, Hampus Lindholm, and Nick Leddy aren't big players, but they play defense by forcing opponents to play defense. But let's look at Honka's play in his own zone.
On this play Honka is the weakside defensemen (or the defensemen on the opposite side of the puck) as the pass begins. Because he has his head on a swivel, he identifies the cross ice pass to the top of the circle right away. It's nothing special, but it's important to note how he never takes himself out of the play with say, a blocked shot like Russell might have done. This is how he's able to stay on his man, and take away the second pass completely. His low center of gravity not only keeps him poised, but it allows him to have his hobbit Hatcher moments:
This isn't a fundamental aspect of Honka's game, but it's there. Generally he keeps his man in front of him. After all, his speed and his puck handling don't suddenly disappear just because the Texas goalie can hear his 'that's what she said' jokes.
Puck Rushing (as Opposed to Puck Moving) is not a Redundancy on Dallas' Blueline
Puck movers and puck rushers are not one in the same. I hear this all the time. Apologies to those whose argument I don't care to make look more nuanced: "Honka is redundant because he's another offensive defensemen. We don't need more points! We need more hits!"
This is the binary approach to analyzing defensemen: good/bad in their own zone versus good/bad in the opponent's zone. Which is obviously ridiculous. Alex Ovechkin and Patrice Bergeron are both forwards. In the regular season they both had a similar amount of points. They must be similar.
To wit, Gus Katsaros had this to say about the problem with this binary approach to talking about blueliners in a recent PDO Podcast with Dimitri Filipovic:
There's a distinct difference between a rusher and mover. A rusher is someone like Kaberle, or Doughty that can go end to end. Limiting the defensive risk while moving the puck up ice. An outlet guy, or puck mover, is someone that might skate to the top of the circle and move the puck out with a pass. Now you're putting more risk out there because there's the chance of interference, turnover, et cetera.
Dallas has puck movers. Jason Demers, Kris Russell, Jordie Benn, and to a lesser extent, Alex Goligoski fit this archetype. Honka does not. Here he is in the playoffs against the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim) taking a quick pass from Mattias Backman.
This is Honka at his Honkiest. He takes the pass, accelerates like a Ducati and goes straight to the crease. The neutral zone becomes a blur, but Honka's real strength here is his puck handling: the Gull forward being forced to back up and play the gap against him has him at a good distance. But once he crosses their blueline he deftly pulls the puck back closer to his body to keep from telegraphing his rush (and to avoid being poke checked). The middle of the ice isn't a problem either. Just ask future top four Blue Jacket blueliner Zack Werenski at the 2014 World Juniors.
As any captain obvious would say, undressing Werenski is no easy feat. Especially with Sonny Milano theoretically on the backcheck. Being a rusher versus a mover doesn't automatically make a defender better: but it drives a rhetorical stake through the heart of lazy analysis boxing Honka in as a "mere puck mover".
Armchair scouts will lament what he will look like against the big bad aggressive forecheck of an LA or St. Louis, but you can't hit what you can't catch. Because he knows how to hockey, he sort of knows what an aggressive forecheck is, and counterpunches accordingly.
Sam Henley, the Rampage player on the forecheck, is 6'5. Given Honka's height, this should have been an easy poke check. Alas, speed kills.
No Such Thing as the Highlander Rule for the Blueline
I feel like the strongest portion of my argument to keep Honka is the one that has nothing to do with him: John Klingberg is one man. If he's injured, who takes his place? Who can man the point, rush the puck up ice, and generate points on the power play or at even strength from the blueline? Jason Spezza puts up a lot of points behind Tyler Seguin, but who the heck is about to call Spezza "redundant"?
If Spezza were younger, we'd be praising his contributions to the core. Aside from which, Klingberg accounted for 34 Percent of Dallas' offense from the blueline. That's a massive blow to Dallas' blueline if he's ever lost for an extended amount of time. In addition, depth is king. You can't shelter a third pair of defensemen. Jason Demers and Kris Russell got hammered in the St. Louis series because they couldn't exit the zone. But they couldn't exit the zone because they couldn't protect the puck with footwork, making their outlet passes more predictable. Honka is not the perfect defensemen. But he can do things a lot of Dallas' defensemen cannot. And that's why Dallas would be foolish to trade him for pennies on the dollar.
I get that Stars fans want a shiny free agent, and that the present must be capitalized on. But Honka now has 141 games of quality North American professional experience in the AHL. Radek Faksa had 66 AHL games through 3 seasons under his belt before making the jump to Dallas. Between the SEL, SHL, and the AHL, Klingberg racked up 104 games before making his NHL debut.
It is entirely possible that Honka's future is already here. It just happens to be distributed unevenly. Even if it isn't, he's far closer to primetime than the critics suspect. Dallas would be wise to keep him over a rental before he's able to afford plenty of his own rent.