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Are We Seeing the Last Days of Julius Honka in Dallas?

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When the easy answers aren’t good enough for the hardest questions

Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last year brought a lot of vindication for anyone with any opinion about Julius Honka. For those who doubted his ability to live up to first-round pick status, Ken Hitchcock and Rick Wilson’s decreasing usage of him last season and Honka’s 10-game reassignment to the AHL proved their doubts warranted. Clearly, Honka wasn’t ready for the big-time, even (or especially) in a defensive system that didn’t ask its defenders to do too much magic with the puck.

So Honka only played 42 games with the big club last season, while players like Greg Pateryn, who was lost for nothing in free agency, garnered more minutes in what was ultimately a lost season. However, those 42 games Honka did play also had something conclusive about them for the Honka defenders: the Stars went 25-12-5 in those matches, and he brought with him a chunk of positive metrics, including a +1.1% team-relative xGF, per Corsica.

per hockeyviz.com

If you want to oversimplify—and who doesn’t when it comes to #freehonka—Honka last year was a player who generated good hockey for his team but was disproportionately demonized for some bad mistakes. The disparity between Honka’s projected goal differentials and his actuals has raised some eyebrows on either end of the ice the last couple of years, but in weird ways. To wit:

2017-18

xGF: 18.27 - Actual Goals For: 15

xGA: 15.23 - Actual Goals Against: 14

xGF%: 54.54 - Actual GF%: 51.72

And then there’s this year:

2018-19

xGF: 8.28 - Actual Goals For: 11

xGA: 8.06 - Actual Goals Against: 12

xGF%: 50.67 - Actual GF%: 47.83

To summarize, last year’s Honka was slightly better than expected in goals allowed, but far below where his play suggested he should have been in goals produced. Whereas, this season, Honka’s seeing more goals than you’d expect on both sides of the ice, but the goals-against outperformance has been, unfortunately, more explosive.

This mirrors the Stars of the last two years, actually. Hitch’s team was likewise as-expected in terms of goals allowed, but slightly underwhelming in goals scored. Montgomery, meanwhile, has seen his team generate and allow a bit more goals than Corsica projects, but with the bigger hit in goals-against, dragging the team below 50% in overall GF% on the year.

These are a lot of little numbers, and none of them should be taken by itself as a definitive statement on what Honka is or isn’t now; so let me put it another way: Honka’s struggles have been, in large part, the team’s struggles of the last two years. Not enough offense when it was needed, and too porous defensively on a team that is trying to be as low-event as possible while the players find a way to coalesce. In other words, Honka has been the opposite of the old Mike Modano adage: As the Stars go, so goes Julius Honka. That is not what you’d call an “impact player.”

As Sean Shapiro reported the other night, Jim Montgomery exhorted Honka the morning before the Colorado game with this: “You’re in tonight, and make sure you play well enough so that there’s no reason to take you out again.”

You know what happened in that one. Honka got benched for a long while after a bad coverage error leading to a goal against, and the Stars are now looking at the idea of playing, and I say this with a straight face, Taylor Fedun, Joel Hanley, and Gavin Bayreuther over a healthy Julius Honka against, of course, Ken Hitchcock’s Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night. If Ken Hitchcock ensured that Julius Honka’s trade value didn’t grow at all last season, this still small campaign has all but obliterated Honka’s possibility of bringing anything more substantial than a 3rd-round pick in return, should a trade come to fruition.

How did we get here? Well, Josh Lile’s treatment of the subject last week had a lot of good thoughts, so check it out if you missed it. But here’s as good an anchor point as any to move onto the latter part of our discussion today:

If you watch Honka play you see good flashes and bad flashes. You see the inconsistency in his game that holds him back. We’ve seen Honka do magical things with the puck that make him believe he can do anything with it, but we’ve then seen those same situations bite him in the ass enough that it is going to naturally make him question his ability as a hockey player while minimizing the amount of skill he puts on display.

I’ve loved Julius Honka as a player for a long while. It was thrilling to watch him explode in overtime for his first NHL goal, but two years later, Honka is about to turn 23, and the Stars are already looking like they’ve lost faith in him as a useful player this season. Honka has played under 10 minutes in two of his last three games. He has yet to score this year, and it’s debatable whether he’ll see another overtime shift all season.

John Klingberg’s terrible injury was supposed to provide opportunity, but Honka’s play has been uneven. This is not the player Honka was two years ago, and while you can blame Ken Hitchcock if you want to demonize someone, Honka hasn’t matured like you would hope a first-rounder would in the face of adversity. The team in Colorado needed to weather some storms, and Honka played too much of the game with a leaky umbrella. He didn’t lose them the game, but his (nice) assist to Tyler Seguin a minute ago is the only thing that jumps out as possibly winning one. Dallas wanted to see Honka step up, and he’s stepped in it. He hasn’t rebounded from mistakes well, and he hasn’t changed hearts and minds enough even when he’s had fairly solid games.

Maybe the NHL is wise to all of Honka’s tricks, and we’re seeing his real NHL ceiling. Maybe Honka is so skittish now that he’s hesitant when trying something, giving the opponents all the time they need to get in good enough position to make him look ineffective. Maybe Honka is better than we think, and this is just a rough patch. But the coaches certainly don’t think so, and now Joel Hanley is looking to keep closing his fingers around the ice time that used to belong to #6. It would have seemed unthinkable any time before it became inevitable.

Still, one thing might save Honka’s chances to earn back some trust in Dallas, and it’s the same thing that brought up the parade of his recent replacements: the lack of good alternatives.

Trading Honka now is just another shot to the Dallas system’s defensive depth at a time when even Cedar Park can’t afford it, and you’d be trading Honka at perhaps his lowest point of value since his draft day. Not exactly a high return, in other words. Unless the Stars can do some kind of “project for project” or “fresh start” trade, they really are punting on another first-round blunder, and that’s not a good look for an organization that just discarded Jack Campbell and Jamie Oleksiak—who have both been meaningful contributors to their respective teams this season—in subsequent seasons. With Valeri Nichushkin also hovering in that marginal part of the lineup for Dallas, I can’t imagine Jim Nill is eager to ask another team to rub any more egg on his face than is absolutely necessary, either. He didn’t pick Campbell or Oleksiak, but the Stars certainly held onto them for a long time, and with nothing of significant value to show for it.

Honka is about where Jamie Oleksiak was last season, if you think about it. Oleksiak was given every chance to prove Hitchcock right for handing top-four minutes to him, and instead, Oleksiak was shipped out to Pittsburgh for a mid-range draft pick after 21 games. Honka is at 19 games this season, and I don’t see another 19 as all that likely unless something drastically changes, anywhere, in the near future.

I could be wrong. Honka is about 100 games shy of Oleksiak’s Dallas total, so maybe we’re rushing things a bit. Maybe Marc Methot and Stephen Johns take longer to recuperate while players like Fedun and Hanley lose favor, and Honka finds his game again, and we forget this ever happened. Seasons are long, and we can’t ever predict the next 20 games no matter how certain we are about the first 20.

Still, Dallas is hanging onto the last playoff spot in the West, and they’ve a few weeks yet before John Klingberg makes his return. Cutting Honka loose now is the last thing Dallas wants to do to its defensive depth, even if Honka has sunk a bit on the ledger. If there is a trade, it probably needs to bring back a blueliner in the process, and preferably a cheap one, with Dallas’s salary cap crunch right now. Good luck finding one, although Nill has usually managed to find something when he needs to.

Maybe a trade, maybe a few games in the press box until another defenseman starts to falter/gets a giant anvil dropped on their equipment bag during warmps. Either way, time seems short for one Dallas defenseman to regain his coach’s trust, and the Stars really need all the time they can get, right now. We’ll see what happens when players start coming back, but don’t be surprised if choices get tougher than expected when folks start suiting up again. We were all hoping the difficulty in choosing would have been for a different reason, but the results haven’t been there, and even an okay-ish process for Honka can’t erase what is perceived as a pattern of ineffective play. It’s time to shape up or be shipped up. We always knew this season would be interesting. This is one of the less enjoyable interesting parts. Something’s gotta give, but it’s not clear what will be given. Not yet, at least.