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Protect “Battles” Linger as Dallas Stars Season Winds Down

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With the expansion draft looming, Erin and I look at two key positional battles playing out over the Stars’ remaining games.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks
Can Stephen Johns do enough down the stretch to supplant Jamie Oleksiak in Stars’ long term plans?
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

There are certainly segments of Stars fandoms focused on a (too) late playoff run. Thank a down conference, down division, the NHL’s Participation Point, or just old school optimism. Not me. The playoff-hopers can have their white whale. I’m much more interested in how this roster untangles and reshapes itself. In particular, my eyes are turned to Las Vegas, this summer’s Expansion Draft, and to a pair of positional battles developing down the stretch.

In short, someone has to go. At forward, signs point to one of Cody Eakin or Antoine Roussel being exposed. For the defense, the decision will come down to Stephen Johns versus Jamie Oleksiak. Both polarizing pairs seemed determined to drive fans into a frenzy. Everybody’s got a favorite.

So let’s start there. One ground rule, though. Neither one of us is allowed to get cute and talk about Val Nichushkin, trades, or some other prospect until the end. It’s a binary argument, got it? I’ll even go first.

Wes

For my money, the single easiest decision facing the Stars is to not protect Antoine Roussel. If I’m Jim Nill, I’m scribbling it on the back of my business card and included “by the way, Rous is available” on my voicemail message. Whatever I can do to get the word out.

Here’s the thing: I don’t hate Rous. I am actually rather fond of him as a player. He brings a helpful element to the Stars, can play throughout the lineup, and even manages respectable offensive production. If anything, his versatility and value is exactly why I want him exposed.

You see, if Vegas takes Antoine, they can’t take anybody else. Furthermore, at 27 it’s unlikely Rous is due some Brad Marchand-esque transformation into anything more than what he is today: a nice complimentary piece. As much as I love Rooster, there are guys just like him available every year. Guys that won’t come back around to bite the Stars as missed opportunities.

After the season he’s had, Cody Eakin isn’t going to draw nearly the same level of attention. And don’t you even dare float the “George McPhee drafted Eakin!” argument. McPhee also traded Cody Eakin, if memory serves.

I’d rather have a guy that just might be a very good center than a guy who is a kind of good winger.

Erin

I follow that argument about Roussel up until your point that “If they take him, they can’t take anyone else.” From my point of view, the people they could expose other than him on the forward side of the puck aren’t necessarily worth giving up another year of cost-effective, versatile production to protect.

To do this properly, we have to establish a few baselines. The first, I think, is it’s clear they will, or at least they should, go with a 7 forwards-3 defensemen-1 goalie protection list rather than the eight skaters plus a goalie version. Their talent and depth is in the top 12, so to make sure you can keep as much of that intact as possible is more important.

So let’s figure out the seven forwards. From that start, Jason Spezza and Jamie Benn have clauses in their contracts that say they must be protected. Tyler Seguin is such a no-brainer I almost didn’t even type him out. Radek Faksa is also pretty much a lock at this point.

Signing Curtis McKenzie and Adam Cracknell to extensions last week means the Stars can easily meet their requirements for veteran forward exposure, and both are almost certain to be left unprotected. So they no longer have to expose veterans to meet that requirement.

On the exempt end, my understanding is Mattias Janmark, Remi Elie and Devin Shore are second-year professionals and do not have to be protected. Valeri Nichushkin is an interesting question, since he would be eligible to be selected, and that may come down to how frayed his relationship with the team actually is. Call him a yes right now, just for argument’s sake, leaving two spots open.

So the players in question, if the argument is using Roussel to tempt Vegas from not taking other players, are guys like Eakin himself, Cracknell, McKenzie and Brett Ritchie.

That leaves Ritchie - three years younger than Roussel and on an RFA contract but without the versatility to move throughout the lineup and special teams units. He’s having a solid year but being strongly aided by luck (the Stars team PDO is 98.4 and Ritchie’s individual PDO is 104.2). Is protecting him worth exposing a player you are pretty sure will get taken, a guy who will almost certainly make you better next year on a team that at least should be in win-now mode?

And heck, with Benn, Seguin, Spezza, Faksa and Nichuskin protected, the Stars have two spots for Ritchie, Eakin and Roussel, so if they’re convinced this year shows signs more than just an uptick in luck for Ritchie, they can keep him as well as Roussel.

Eakin, for all the value of a center in this league, is the obvious choice to expose there. He’s tempting enough for Vegas and not a huge loss to the makeup of the team as it stands for next year, especially given the issues he’s had this year.

Though perhaps you think four defensemen should be protected? And if so, who, exactly, has caught your eye to deserve that?

Wes

For what it’s worth, I think Lindy Ruff’s future and Eakin’s future might be twined very closely together. Coaches have “guys” sometimes.

But you asked me a question about the defense. Do I have to pick four? Can I just write “Klingberg” four times, or hope for a secret Soviet-era cloning project to suddenly mature and produce Sergei Zubov 2.0? How would the rights work on that, by the way? Dallas would get right of first refusal on signing any clones of former players, yes?

I kid, I kid.

Like you, I see Dallas opting for the 7-3-1 protection scheme. John Klingberg is going to be the first name on that list. He was a lock even before a second-half surge pulled the young defender’s counting stats more in line with career norms. After him, however, things get a little bit harder to predict.

In my view the Stars have two easy decisions. Term and age mean Dan Hamhuis is unlikely to warrant protection, and Julius Honka is going to fail to meet the eligibility requirements. Deep breaths.

Esa Lindell is next, but any thoughts of leaving him exposed should be put to bed. Last I checked Lindell was playing more than 80% of his shifts alongside John Klingberg. It feels unlikely the team would invest in that kind of workload and then risk losing the kid for nothing. I think he’s safe.

Which leaves us with Stephen Johns and Jamie Oleksiak. The two 24-year olds will likely spend the next ten or so games battling for the Stars’ final protectable slot. Unless something weird happens to thrust Patrik Nemeth back into the conversation (spoiler: nothing that weird could possibly happen).

It’s funny, in October my answer would have been “Stephen Johns, duh.” Fresh off an inspiring 13-game playoff run, the Chicago cast off had crept into Stars’ fans hearts and minds as the latest example of Jim Nill playing chess against a checkers league. Now? Not so much.

Johns, more than almost any other player on the roster, has come to represent the 2016-2017 Stars season that never was. When he’s not being outright benched, he’s been moved up and down the lineup. Nobody seems to know what to do with the guy.

Which got me thinking. Most of Johns’ promise was built during a 14+13 stretch+playoff run last season alongside Steady Vet (™) Johnny Oduya. This was back when the Stars could score their way out of trouble. Ever since he’s been kind of a disaster. Really, he was kind of a challenge even then. I’m not going to take us down a fancystat rathole, but Johns has been a possession drain from the moment he entered the NHL (46.2 CF% / -4.8 CF%-Rel). This while playing for a possession-dominant version of the Dallas Stars.

What if he’s just not very good? He did get traded, after all.

At least Jamie Oleksiak has one elite attribute to tip the scales in his favor (ha!). I know the “he’s big!” argument has lost almost all of its meaning after five seasons, but I think in this situation it’s worth repeating. The Big Rig is an abnormally large person with abnormally good skating ability. There’s a reason management has endured four years of growing pains. Assets like Oleksiak are rare.

It’s perhaps a tepid endorsement, but Dallas is not an elite defensive team. We’re talking about the final protect, the last pick. In a vacuum, neither player has really done anything on-ice to demand inclusion. This is a projection exercise. Oleksiak, if he can play, adds a unique element to the Stars backline. Johns, if he can play, is a rough facsimile to guys they’ve already got and seem to prefer.

Does this team really need its Brenden Dillon back? Do they? And while I’m asking you things, I’m going to go ahead and throw in a bonus question: what would you do with the Dallas Stars? Would you stick with the 7-3-1? How does Nuke factor in?

Wow me.

Erin

I’m afraid I can’t wow you with the rock-and-hard-place situation the Stars find themselves in with protecting the defense, and that’s not a compliment. I agree that Klingberg and Lindell are no-brainers to protect (though every time I back up and look at Lindell’s big-picture numbers this season or watch him get blown by in a foot race it makes me hurt so much inside), but I disagree that there’s only nominal difference between Johns and Oleksiak (and Brenden Dillon, wonderful dude that he is, would be just another type of the same question.)

Oleksiak adds a unique element but I would argue he more than detracts from that with the holes that are unique to his game at the NHL level, namely a decided lack of footspeed and increasingly worrying lack of gap control. Combine that with the fact that he is in his fifth season of games at the NHL level, compared to second for the slightly younger Johns, and he’s quickly moving from “could be” to “clearly not.”

Look, I’d love to see him work out, but as I wrote in my piece about the sunk cost fallacy recently, Oleksiak in a vaccuum is among the worst defenders on the team with no numerical improvement over the years. He’s shown no real sign that he will ever be a Chara (who played more NHL games in his first two seasons that Oleksiak did in his first four) but instead projects like a Hal Gill, if that. The quicker the Stars accept that he’s a missed draft pick they can stop pouring valuable assets into something that is pretty clearly not working in this organization.

I have some similar concerns about Esa Lindell (whose numbers from this season are pretty abysmal even in minutes that should lead to success), but Lindell is four years younger and four seasons earlier in development than Oleksiak, so he has enough of a chance to progress that he’s worth protecting.

Which brings us back to Johns. He has not had a great season, but he also hasn’t been worse. Essentially, he is the same player he was in 2015-16 on a defense that took a huge leap backward, and in a way you can argue that’s an improvement. It’s funny that you bring up a possession drain, because that’s all Oleksiak has been since entering the NHL, and with more experience and age (as well as more chances than are probably deserved), I’d argue he’s much less likely to progress than Johns.

So I’m not thrilled about protecting Johns, because you’re right that he’s got his own flaws, but I’d protect him every day of the week and twice on Sunday if I was choosing between him or Oleksiak.

And because of this, I think you have to stick with the 7-3-1 alignment. The Stars defense, significantly more so than their goalies this season, has been the root of the problem because of a lack of talent. Klingberg is a clear No. 1, Dan Hamhuis is a fine 3 or 4, as were the dearly departed Jordie Benn and Johnny Oduya. Lindell and Johns might be a 3 or 4 one day, but right now they, Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth are all firmly 6 or 7s who need protected minutes. Only players with a realistic chance to progress out of that are worth protecting, which leads you to Lindell and Johns.

Seven forwards would also allow them to easily protect Nichushkin and more of the real strength of the team. Build from where you succeed already, not from what you keep throwing praise at because you are too afraid to admit you failed.

What a different conversation this would have been if the Stars had kept Jordie Benn, eh? You could make a real case that he would be the best option of the Oleksiak/Johns/Nemeth. But bygones and poor management decisions aside, the situation today should force their hand in terms of that option.

But given the NHL’s brilliant marketing decisions, we may never know how they decide, I guess.

Wes

For what it’s worth, right now, I would pick Jordie over either Johns or Oleksiak without hesitation. I also agree with you that defense has been far more of an issue for this team than goaltending. Allowing rot to fester along the backline has crippled this team at even strength, de-fanged its second power play, and installed a turnstile on the penalty kill.

Remove the requirement, and outside of John Klingberg, would you actually protect anybody?

Here’s crazy for you: the Stars protect Lindell and Klingberg, then spend the next two months acting like they’ll also protect Johns. Hopefully, they sell the bit to the point where Vegas bites, but for a modest return (maybe a 3rd or 4th rounder) they agree to leave Johns (who you have convinced me is superior to Oleksiak, congrats) exposed. Next, Oleksiak gets qualified (he’s an RFA) and flipped for something/anything. Maybe doing so keeps the Eakin/Roussel/Ritchie trio in Victory Green.

Sometimes you just have to fold and wait for a new hand, right?