We’ll know soon enough which 23 players will start the season in the NHL for Dallas. Cuts will be announced, players will be passed through waivers (or claimed while on them), and we’ll all start to reconcile ourselves to the second Ken Hitchcock iteration of the Stars. This is a meaningless opening paragraph that is just saying “hockey is going to start soon,” which you already knew. Let’s talk about the defense.
All the most recent comments from Ken Hitchcock indicate that Jamie Oleksiak is starting the season as a Dallas Stars defenseman in the NHL, and significantly so. The battle for an NHL roster spot—Hamhuis*, Lindell, Methot and Klingberg are likewise not being waived or re-assigned—is now between Greg “Greg” Pateryn, Julius Honka, Patrik Nemeth, and Stephen Johns. You can keep three if you’re okay with carrying eight defensemen, so that’s—*ducks a hail of rotten fruit and thrown bricks*—right, yes, seven defensemen, like I said. That means you get two of those players.
Honka can go to the AHL without being claimed on waivers, so that’s something. Unfortunately, of all four players, he’s the one you’d probably least want in Texas at this point. He can transition the puck, create offense, and generally just make things happen. Sometimes there is risk to that game, in a similar (though not identical) fashion to the game of John Klingberg. P.K. Subban’s game is not risk-free, but there comes a point where you take the bad with the good because the good is way, way bigger. Honka seems to be at that point, but Hitch is holding his cards close to his vest.
Johns? He’s also in a good spot, though with some learning still to be done, if his lapses in judgment last year are any indication. That learning would seem to be done best in the NHL with a solid partner—if Lindell isn’t the definition of “solid” in Hitch’s book by this point, I don’t know who is, but maybe Esa sticks with Klingberg—but there just isn’t room for Johns alongside Julius Honka and Jamie Oleksiak, right now. You see the dilemma.
Patrik Nemeth, by the way, is easily the one most negatively affected by the Stars’ handling of their defense over the past couple years. Without the draft pedigree of Oleksiak or the skating, physicality and big shot of Johns, Nemeth has been forced to take whatever ice time was left over. Once Honka start getting looks last season, that time shrunk even further. Nemeth has, by all accounts, had a fine camp. He seems the least likely to start the season on the NHL roster, if only because Pateryn is probably a better 7th defender at this point in his career. The next time you get frustrated at this logjam, just think how Nemeth must feel. In the last three years, he’s averaged about 30 games played per year. Some of that was injury-related, but at this point, there just isn’t room for a stable-but-unspectacular player to grow into NHL form. The Stars don’t have the ice time for him, but they’re unwilling to lose a 25-year-old NHLer for nothing.
Greg Pateryn is older than these kids, was ready to be given away by Montreal, and frankly speaking, he’s closer to the Like It level of Coldstone Roster Decisions than the Gotta Have It tier. The Stars traded Jordie Benn for a draft pick, and Greg Pateryn came back along with it. You don’t build rosters around players like him, but good teams often have players like him on them. Like Nemeth, he’s not someone you risk losing if you don’t have to; unlike Nemeth, the Stars wouldn’t really lose any good will by scratching him 50 times this season.
From Jim Nill’s perspective, why would you want to lose players? Trades may have been sought for Nemeth, but a player with zero NHL goals and minimal ice time to impress any takers just isn’t going to make GMs give anything up unless they’re desperate. Injuries might strike, and then you’re plenty glad to have a Nemeth (or a Pateryn) waiting in the wings. The only problem is that injuries have primarily struck the forwards or Nemeth himself over the last few years. And so Patrik Nemeth presses on, waiting for his rights to mature as he heads into his later 20s.
Julius Honka is the easy fan (or blog writer) pick of those four players for the simple reason that he’s the best defender among those four players, and you won’t find much argument otherwise from anyone watching these games or other games or looking at the statistics. Honka can help the Stars move the puck up the ice, and magical things happen once it gets to the other end. Search him on YouTube if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, you know all this. (You really do know an awful lot, it turns out.) You’ll be furious if the Stars choose a less-good defender than Julius Honka to play hockey simply to avoid losing Nemeth and/or Pateryn for nothing. You’ll be furious if Jamie Oleksiak, whose promise as a first-rounder has thoroughly fizzled after a too-early promotion to the NHL, winds up getting the prime treatment that you are sure Julius Honka would do better with. You’ll be furious if Nemeth sits another 40 games in the press box “just in case” the Stars get stricken with another bout of roster-wide gout. You’ll be furious if the Stars don’t play Honka, Johns, and Klingberg on the right side.
What I’m holding onto right now is that, all-told, my ideal blue line of Klingberg-Methot, Hamhuis-Honka and Lindell-Johns might happen a bit later in the season, but not too much later. Hitchcock probably is truthful when he is saying the team has made up its mind on Oleksiak starting the season with prime minutes, but then, we started last season with literally Jordie Benn playing as Klingberg’s partner. That did not last long. (Aside: Jordie Benn might also start this season as Shea Weber’s partner in Montreal, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up too much.)
I guess what I’m saying is, the results are going to be the thing. If the Stars are winning and Oleksiak keeps playing top-four minutes, that probably means he’s not doing badly. That is only going to be a good thing for Dallas, as it either boosts Oleksiak’s trade value or means he’s actually becoming a reliable defenseman for the Stars, which is kind of what we’ve wanted all along. It’s a bit of cruel irony that it might happen in this particular fashion, of course, but cruelty is practically an old friend at this point. It will be a good think if Oleksiak turns into a top-four NHL defender for the Dallas Stars. Hitch is the only one saying that he has already done so, but for now, we can only remain skeptical, not wholly dismissive.
So when the Stars announce their presumptive Opening Night lineup for the final preseason game on Saturday and it’s nowhere near what you’d want, just remember that this isn’t last year. This isn’t Tyler Seguin between shifted over to the wing because the coach doesn’t trust him. This situation is about last chances, multiple good options, and hope. The Stars can stash Honka in the AHL for a little bit, but there’s no way this team leaves him there for more than a month or two unless they’re winning plenty of games and staying perfectly healthy.
Jim Nill kept Honka two years ago even though it meant rolling with Antti Niemi over Cam Talbot. If you think Honka has lost value in that time, you’re wrong. The Stars know what they have in Honka, but if this situation is a last chance for anyone on the team, it might well be Oleksiak. After all, he’s finally being handed trust, optimism, and encouragement right out of the gate. Tom Gaglardi didn’t let Nill drop a hundred millions bucks or whatever this summer just to keep feeling things out. Result are going to be the thing, and Oleksiak is being asked to deliver the goods. If he doesn’t, the Stars have other options, and good ones. It’s possible to root for Oleksiak to succeed, and for Johns to figure things out, and for Honka to start making you look smart for buying his jersey last year.
This has gone on way too long, but let me leave you with my suspicions: there are other ways to make things work. I’m not sure I can see the Stars trading Dan Hamhuis to keep Oleksiak and Johns as Mike Heika suggested last week, but it’s one way things could shake out that doesn’t mean jettisoning a young defender for nothing right out of camp. Remember what Jim Nill did with Gonchar in 2014-15, trading him in early November to make room for John Klingberg. The Stars won’t keep Honka in the AHL if they need him, and I doubt they’ll be willing to wait until November to make that call. If that means Hamhuis gets traded to make room, I’ll be sad. If it ultimately makes the Stars better, I’ll end up happy.
Or perhaps Brenden Dillon is a better example. Despite overall strong play and optimism around his future with the team, Dillon was traded 10 days after Gonchar for Jason Demers, etc. in what ended up being a steal of a trade for Dallas, as Demers was great for two years while Dillon was exposed in the expansion draft. Stephen Johns is certainly a sort of a Dillon figure this time around, someone who has some great tools but has fought some tough circumstances in playing a complete game for sustained periods of time. The undrafted Dilllon was found money, however; Johns was a much-sought-after trade piece, and one would think the Stars would rather see how he does in a stable defensive system before giving up on him.
Still, I can see Nill deciding to get value for an extra asset if he can get something even more useful in return, as the Stars did with Dillon. Trades are ludicrous until they make sense. At the time, Dillon for Demers was a shocker of a trade, as we had all fallen in love with Dillon to one extent or another. Johns is better than Dillon was, but his situation is eerily similar. Lots of teams would love to have a player like that, and if trading him means making Dallas even more ready to contend this season, I could see it happening, although I wouldn’t be watching it dispassionately. Far from it, really.
Any scenario that keeps Oleksiak in the roster, of course, is contingent on one thing only: some measurable improvement. If Oleksiak isn’t markedly better this year, then Jim Nill will solve this issue for Ken Hitchcock, one way or another. We’ll be baffled if Hitch’s praise of Oleksiak doesn’t match the results on the ice for an extended period of time, but if Hitch has made one thing clear, it’s that he wants to have the best six defensemen he can have for the longest period of time possible. Jim Nill’s job with Hitch is similar to Hitch’s with Oleksiak: to give him what he needs to do his job as best he can. Sometimes that might mean giving him things, and sometimes taking them away. Managing a roster of decent NHL players is very difficult. Before much longer, the Stars will have a roster full of players much more than decent. We just can’t be sure of their names quite yet. It’s always annoying not to know things, but just remember that you get to keep your job no matter who succeeds on the Dallas blue line. We have it easy, really.