With the re-signing of Jamie Oleksiak yesterday and the apparent readiness of Esa Lindell to move into a full-time NHL role, the Dallas Stars seem to find themselves in eight defenseman purgatory once again.
A quick count leaves the apparent top four of John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, Dan Hamhuis and Stephen Johns with the foursome of Oleksiak, Lindell, Jordie Benn and Patrik Nemeth for the bottom two spots. From a macro standpoint, having a similar situation didn't necessarily hurt the Stars too much last year - they did win the Western Conference regular-season title after all. Even with practically all of the defensemen, they still had to bring up players like Lindell and Johns when injuries struck at the same time later in the season.
But there are questions from a micro perspective, particularly when it comes to player development. How will players like Nemeth, Oleksiak and Lindell get better when they are denied NHL minutes by each other as well as the players in front of them? Aren't the Stars doing them a disservice by putting them in a situation where they will spend a fair amount of time in the press box?
And, most importantly, isn't it a condemnation of the Stars development process that they are in this situation yet again with players who aren't playing enough in the NHL to have a high trade value yet would get snapped up off of waivers for free?
The answer to all of those things is "it's complicated".
To start with the first question, managing eight defensemen, this time three of them young and theoretically champing at the bit, is not an easy task at all, and it is likely to hold one or two back from their maximum potential. But the unasked question is what that potential actually is.
If the Stars see Player X as someone who tops out as a 5/6 defenseman with limited or no special teams ability, they may be less invested in developing him all the way through to that level and instead put their time into Player Y, who could be a 3/4, or Player Z, who is already a fully formed 5/6 without the warts of someone learning that game. Since lower-tier defensemen are pretty replaceable, it doesn't make sense to prioritize that player's development.
That's the first part of the situation, and the way the Stars have handled certain players gives us a sense as to what they might be thinking in that regard. It also answers the question - the Stars may be doing the individual a disservice, but they are more concerned about the team performance as a whole.
In other words, individual development not being maximized is not the same thing as the team not reaching its separate maximum potential. Since things like ice time and even coaching work is a zero-sum game, it often makes more sense to let certain pieces fall by the wayside, particularly for a team that's in a win-now situation. Think of it as an opportunity cost - a loss of six years of a 5/6 defenseman (who could be replaced in free agency or by other developing prospects) may be the right choice when weighted against a division title or two.
But in an ideal world with no restrictions on time or resources, of course every team would like to see every prospect develop to his maximum, leaving them with the very best possible pool of players to choose from. So it is worth it to question why the Stars find themselves in a situation where decisions in that regard are going to have to be made again.
The first reason is a crowded draft strategy that left a fair number of players around the same age and developmental stage. On one hand, it's a sign of solid drafting that more players don't flame out at earlier levels, but when that doesn't happen (and no one emerges in a John Klingberg-style blaze of glory to set himself above), that leads to natural bottlenecks.
The second reason falls more on the individuals, and that's developmental stagnation. When, say, a former first-round pick is consistently unable to displace any of the options in front of him, a good chunk of that falls on his shoulders, no matter the ice time situation he's been given.
One of the great fallacies many fans hold is that players cannot get better without game time at the highest possible level. That is certainly part of any equation, but games are around 25 percent of the work a professional athlete does in any given week. In a four-game week, hockey players may get 60-90 minutes of game ice time. Every practice alone runs around an hour, plus morning skates and not to mention time put in for video review and off-ice conditioning.
Every part of that, not just game time, is an opportunity for a player to improve on some aspect of his game. Struggle with tactics? Immerse yourself in the video review process and start to apply those lessons in practice scrimmages or drills. Getting beat with speed? Put in extra time with skating coaches and do work in the weight room. The game performance is the product, not the process.
Those situations are also where a player can prove to a coach that he's a better in-game option than a teammate. If you want the ice time the current sixth defenseman is getting, outperform him in drills. Coaches want to win - their job depends on it, after all. No one who gets to the professional level will ignore the clearly better option that is immediately available.
The Stars have already proven this with their willingness to play Klingberg and Johns consistently when they showed they were better than the current NHL-level options, and Klingberg and Johns in turn have shown that playing NHL hockey right out of the gate does not necessitate a long adjustment period of sheltered ice time.