The Dallas Stars announced today the re-signing for top pairing defenseman Esa Lindell.
The 24-year-old Finnish blueliner was coming off a career year: 11 goals, 21 assists and 32 points and averaged over 24 minutes a game during the regular season. That’s nearly two minutes more than either of his two prior seasons.
In the announcement, general manager Jim Nill said about Lindell, “When you combine his strength, conditioning, hockey IQ and skill, he has become an integral part of this team. Along with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, the three make up the foundation of a blueline that will not only be a strength for our club, but one that will be as good as any in the NHL for the foreseeable future.”
Nill is right about one thing — the Stars backend has flipped from a laughing-stock of the league into an asset and strength of the team. A core of Lindell (25 at the start of next season), John Klingberg (27 at the start of next season), and Miro Heiskanen (20 at the start of next season) is an enviable top three to build your team around.
It also helps that those three make approximately $10.9 million towards the cap next season thanks to Heiskanen’s entry-level contract and the shrewd (and looking more genius by the year) contract Nill locked Klingberg up to four years ago. In fact, Klingberg’s partner will now make $1.6 million more annually than him — Klingberg’s contract carries a $4.25 million cap hit compared to Lindell’s $5.8 million cap hit. (Klingberg, a Norris Trophy favorite over the last few seasons and one of the top #1 blueliners in the league has arguably one of the best value contracts of any signed today. But that’s a debate for another day later in the summer, I think.)
Lindell is tough to quantify in terms of the fancy statistics the hockey world likes to use to measure player’s abilities. Some of that is due to the fact that statistics have a hard time quantifying accurately the impact of a shutdown defender in the modern NHL, where puck possession and shot metrics reign supreme. In fact, Lindell often has some of the worst puck possession metrics among defenders:
Lindell re-signs in Dallas. He's always been an interesting player to watch for me because he's super aggressive at defending the blue line & very good at it. Relies heavily on his teammates for entries and offense at 5v5. pic.twitter.com/J3doWtoRVz— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) May 16, 2019
A lot of that is because of his partner. Lindell and Klingberg have played the majority of the past three seasons as a pairing, and have learned each other’s tendencies really well. Lindell does a lot of the heavy lifting on breaking up entries into the defensive zone and taking away time and space to allow for Klingberg to use his elite puck-moving ability to push possession. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works very well for the two blueliners; it just makes Lindell a metric enigma. He doesn’t possess the puck because he doesn’t have to do that on his pairing.
Lindell is also a key part to the Stars’ fifth-best penalty killing unit in the league this season. In fact, only one other player in the entirety of the NHL played more time on the kill than Lindell’s 265:44 combined minutes. That honor goes to Andy Greene (New Jersey Devils) who played a whooping 335:55 total PK minutes on the league’s top unit.
The young blueliner is still just that — young. He’s averaging more than 24 minutes a game, which places him in some heady company, including Norris favorites and guys lauded for their body of work consistently each season:
Some will argue that it’s an overpayment for what Lindell brings to the table. They’ll point at his possession metrics as the be-all, end-all in player evaluation. While stats provide a good way in which to compare across teams and conferences and among comparable players, it’s not the only thing — especially when those same statistics have been shown time and again that they don’t do a good job of capturing the impact of the defensive-first blueliner.
Dallas is banking on improvement in Lindell’s game not unlike he had this season. At just 25 years of age, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that it will continue next season or the season after that. Most blueliners seem to hit their prime later than forwards — around 28 or so. We’re likely just starting to see Lindell’s full potential.
That makes the risk of an overpayment on this contract for a young bluleliner worth it. It sure looks better than doing the same for an older player during free agency, so in the grand scheme of things, the reward of Lindell’s contract outweighs the risk of short-term overpayment in my mind.