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Dallas Stars Defense in a Shuffle as Stephen Johns Starts Season on IR with Post-Traumatic Headaches

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Stephen Johns is skating, but his return is still uncertain

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the departure of Jason Demers* in the 2016 offseason, I’ve looked forward to seeing the right side of the Dallas Stars defense line up with Julius Honka, John Klingberg, and Stephen Johns. It seems like a good mix of skill and size, with all three players have good-to-great skating ability.

And, for the third straight year, it is quite possible that we will see something else. Here is where we stand on season’s eve, as it was announced this week that Stephen Johns will begin the season on IR with what Jim Nill called “post-traumatic headaches,” and not a concussion. More on that below, but here is where things are right now:

Lindell-Klingberg

Methot-Heiskanen

Polák/Honka/Carrick

I’d wait for morning skate Thursday to make any pronouncements about the defense—Polák practiced with Heiskanen today, but I’m not ready to read into that yet—but the guess is that Jim Montgomery would prefer to pick his spots to deploy those bottom three defenders (who all shoot right-handed). So, whether it’s Honka on his off side with Carrick (my guess) or Polák on Thursday remains to be seen. But I’d bet on that top four being fairly set, at least to start the game.

*For the record, I still understand the Stars’ decision to move on from Goligoski and (to a lesser extent) Demers after 2016. I think Jim Nill probably figured Honka would be playing NHL games regularly sooner rather than later, and he didn’t want someone blocking him with a four-year contract. And, I mean, he was kind of right, as it turned out? Demers alone wouldn’t have altered the course of 2016-17 (except to hurt the Stars’ draft position), and I’m hard-pressed to see Ken Hitchcock playing Demers over Pateryn last season as well. This has been a too-long aside. Please comment on literally anything but this paragraph, thank you.

However, I may have buried the lede here. Stephen Johns, you may recall, suffered a concussion last fall after a hit by Matt Duchene on October 24th. Johns was out until November 2nd, but he would miss some more time later that year. Here’s a brief rundown of what last season looked like for Johns:

10/24: Concussion. Returned on 11/2.

11/24: Left game with head injury. Returned 11/28.

3/29: Left game in Minnesota with upper body injury. Missed final four games of season.

Now, it’s important to not get ahead of ourselves. The Stars appear certain that Johns is not still suffering from a concussion, and he has been skating this week (and even practiced today). He could even be an option for Saturday’s game, as his IR placement was retroactively done.

So, what are post-traumatic headaches? Well, let’s see what we can find out.

First, Matthew DeFranks has this (and much more, including asking Johns when the symptoms started) from Johns today:

“It sucks,” Johns said. “It’s hard to have a good day or be in a good mood when you have a headache. It’s tough right now.”

Johns said concussions suffered last season could have caused the headaches. He missed three games in October with concussion symptoms and another four in late March and early April.

Although Johns felt good enough to practice on Wednesday, he said he did not feel like he was ready to play in a game.

”It’s a day by day process,” Johns said. “You have your good days and your bad days. Just kind of have to wait until the good days get strung along.”

Let’s dig in a bit more. I’m no Erin Bolen, but she has been kind enough to point us in some general directions, including to the inimitable Dr. Amaal Starling, assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, via the American Migraine Foundation:

Dr. Starling also chimed in on Twitter:

Some brief takeaways:

-Post-Traumatic Headache is “a headache developing within seven days of the injury or after regaining consciousness.” This means that Johns’s symptoms that the Stars are describing as post-traumatic headache have arisen from something recent. So, this isn’t necessarily some lingering effect of last year’s concussion, but rather a result of a more recent injury, most likely (but not necessarily) during a preseason practice or other training camp activity.

-The majority of people suffering from post-traumatic headache are also suffering from a concussion, which usually means headache plus additional symptoms. Johns appears to be only suffering from headaches, hence (I presume) the diagnosis of no concussion this time. However, Johns doesn’t appear to have had enough consistent headache-free time for him to feel comfortable in a game.

-I am not a doctor, why are you even listening to me? Watch the danged video and listen to the real doctor.

***

So, while sobering, the Stars are certainly hoping that, with proper treatment and patience, Johns will be headache-free relatively soon. The acquisition of Connor Carrick, of course, now seems much more understandable than it was the other day. Far from being some admission of uncertainty about Roman Polák’s play, it was instead an alternate long-term plan (or at least for this year) if Johns can’t be safely deployed in game situations on a consistent basis.

I think the Stars would prefer to have Heiskanen on his left side with Johns or Carrick—though apparently not with Honka, as Sean Shapiro reported. But it’s understandable that the Stars don’t want to throw Carrick into tough competition right after he lands in Dallas. We’ll have to see if Methot can handle that level of competition, but one would expect the presence of Miro Heiskanen to make his job easier.

So, we wait for opening night with a bit more unease than we’d prefer. Valeri Nichushkin is also battling a minor lower-body injury, but the goalies both appear to be back in shape after missing last weekend for maintenance. Still, the Stars at least are playing the Coyotes on opening night, right? What are the chances of a team from the desert ever beating the Stars on opening night, ha ha.