Julius Honka is not a prospect. Not right now. Not anymore, and he probably has not been for quite some time. With Dallas in need of roster help, trade speculation is beginning to mount. Fantasy, of course, is the natural next step, and Honka has made his way into more than a few comments lately. For expectant fans, it is best to reframe our evaluation of the Dallas Stars’ wayward defender or face disappointment. His story might also be instructive of an ongoing issue doing far more to submarine the chances of the Dallas Stars than the efforts of their best players.
Honka was the 14th overall selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and boy, is there ever a temptation towards revisionist history. For context, Jakob Vrana was 13th and Dylan Larkin 15th. Boston’s David Pastrnak went 25th overall. Vrana (12 goals), Larkin (18 goals), and Pasternak (25 goals) would rank fourth, first, and first in goal-scoring on this season’s Stars. It is hard to watch the likes of Blake Comeau draw consistent time in the top six and not wonder at what might have been.
Such evaluations, however, are not entirely fair. Dallas did not exactly go off the board in selecting Honka. At the time, the Finnish defender was generally considered to be a mid-first round pick, ranked as high as 11th by NHL Central Scouting, and might have been higher were it not for his size. These were the pre-John Klingberg Stars, keep in mind. Alex Goligoski had led the Stars’ backline that season with six goals, 36 assists, and 42 points in 81 games (third on the team). Trevor Daley (25 points) and Sergei Gonchar (22 points) were next in line. This was not, in other words, a loaded blue line.
Even in terms of prospects elsewhere in the system, a solid rationale for selecting Honka existed. The likes of Kevin Connauton, Jamie Oleksiak, and Patrik Nemeth were still Stars, but so was Aaron Rome. Forwards weren’t an issue, as all of Ryan Garbutt (17 goals), Cody Eakin (16), Erik Cole (16), Valeri Nichushkin (14), Antoine Roussel (14), and Alex Chiasson (13) tallied in double digits behind the dynamic duo of Jamie Benn (34 goals) and Tyler Seguin (37 goals). True, Honka was undersized, but with that many weapons up top, it did not project to matter.
The next few seasons did little to dispel the notion Honka could be something special. In his first AHL season (2014-15), Honka registered eight goals, 23 assists, and 31 points. He hit 44 points (11 goals, 33 assists) in 2015-16, and 31 points in just 51 games in 2016-17. That progression earned Honka his first look at NHL action, a 16-game cameo in the 2016-17 season. It wasn’t the worst debut. Honka averaged 16:52 ice time, scored his first goal, and was an eye-opening 56.4% Corsi For on a team that finished sixth in its conference and missed the playoffs. There was hope, however! The forwards were still scoring, Klingberg had arrived (67 points), and Stars fans wondered if they had another Darryl Sydor / Sergei Zubov situation brewing.
They did not.
That offseason, Ken Hitchcock returned to replace Lindy Ruff, and Honka saw his role diminish. Hitchock played the young Finn infrequently in the 2017-18 season. Though the advanced numbers were still solid (52.3% CF), Honka saw his ice time shrink to 13:01 and the healthy scratches begin to mount. He would play a fan-infuriating 42 games that season as the Stars sputtered. For the second season running, the playoffs proved elusive, a fact that would see Hitchcock step aside for newcomer Jim Montgomery. Montgomery, fans hoped, would reignite the offense, and in particular, find a spot for Honka.
He has not, at least, not so far.
So far, Honka is playing marginally more per game than under Hitchcock (14:02 ATOI), but only barely. Trouble is, he still isn’t playing much. As of this writing, Honka has dressed in 25 of the Stars’ first 42 games. Projected across an entire season that equates to 49 games. More than under Hitchcock, but that’s about where the positives end. Honka has four assists, and has seen his possession numbers (the great “yeah, but” of the pro Honka argument) erode to 46.8% CF.
Less tangibly, this season has seen Honka presented with a major personal opportunity. The Stars lost John Klingberg for over a month during a November 8 tilt against the San Jose Sharks. With the offense DOA and their finest puck-moving defender sidelined, Honka faced a career-resuscitating stretch of 18 games.
He was scratched in 10 of those matches.
As I write this on Sunday evening, the sum total of Honka’s career as a Dallas Star is 83 games played, two goals, 11 assists, and 13 points. His formerly impressive possession numbers have eroded to 51.6% CF. Sure, if those numbers were from a single contiguous season they’d make Honka a lead pipe lock on Dallas’ second forward line, but for a top 15 pick, they’re a staggering disappointment.
The bottom line is that Julius Honka has not played significant hockey since being drafted, and when he has played, Honka has struggled to make himself indispensable. There is no world in which the Stars could flip this player for significant assets, not as the centerpiece in the deal.
Disagree? Jamie Oleksiak was a certified physical specimen. He played nearly twice as many games as a Star (140 for Oleksiak vs. 83 for Honka), and played just as much while he was on the ice (14:45 ATOI vs. 14.04 ATOI). Oleksiak scored nearly twice as many points overall (7 goals, 15 assists, 22 points vs. two goals, 11 assists, 13 points), and scored at an effectively identical per game rate (.157 points per game vs .156 points per game). And finally, he managed comparable possession numbers (49.5% CF vs. 51.6% CF). Statistically, there is very little to separate the pair.
Oleksiak netted the Stars a conditional fourth round pick when he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A conditional fourth round pick. It bears repeating. That’s the market for Julius Honka. That’s what the Stars have built for themselves over the past four and a half years. How much would a rival GM need to see behind the numbers to bid higher, and what circumstances would need to emerge to drive a bidding war?
The cold reality is that Julius Honka is the latest in a long, brutal line of Dallas first rounders to not pan out. Mark Fistric, Scott Glennie, Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Campbell, these are his contemporaries. The scuffling Stars absolutely need to go out and find scoring, they’re just going to need an awful lot more than Julius Honka — either on or off the ice — to find it.