Miro Heiskanen and Roman Polak were not supposed to be on the same defensive pair in 2018-19, but things rarely went according to plan for the Dallas Stars when it came to the defensive corps. Going into the season, the talk surrounding the Stars started and stopped with Heiskanen and the possibility of a formidable top four with Stephen Johns riding shotgun alongside the talented 18-year-old. However, with the early loss of Johns to LTIR, the Stars coaching staff was forced to put Polak in a position that nobody could have foreseen when his free agency signing was announced.
That isn’t to say that the pair of Heiskanen and Polak was bad, however; quite the contrary.
At times during the 2018-19 campaign, the pair served as a solid option for the coaching staff, as the team attempted to piece together a complicated puzzle of defenders behind Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. Polak also served as a type of sounding board and veteran presence for Heiskanen, as the young defender made the rounds on the NHL circuit for the first time. At times though, the pair could be a liability for a roster that desperately needed a true fourth defenseman. This fact was painfully obvious as the games became tighter, and the opponents had that fourth defenseman that the Stars sorely lacked.
So as we look back at this odd but beautiful pairing that would be the Stars’ second pair, let’s first separate them, before issuing a final verdict on their overall performance.
Heiskanen came into his rookie season as arguably the most important Dallas Stars draft pick since Mike Modano. For over a year, hockey people around the world had been building their expectations around the moment the eighteen year-old would first see NHL ice. To compound the already lofty expectations, the Stars placed even more confidence in young Miro by refusing to trade him for Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
When his career finally started, Heiskanen was as good or better than advertised. His second shift in the NHL was something to behold, and served as a great look into what his game is all about.
This one shift for Heiskanen really displays all that is great about his game, in that he was just so talented and so smart for his age. His defending was good for long stretches of the season, and he made the adjustments necessary when he did find himself out of position or when he was beaten on plays. As he progresses, his defending will indeed improve at the NHL level.
Offensively, Heiskanen was extremely impressive during the campaign for the Stars. Through a complete 82 game season, Heiskanen posted 12 goals, 21 assists, for 33 points. In the goal scoring department, 10 of the twelve goals were at even strength. By comparison, Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres scored 5 of his 9 goals on the power play, and 15 of his 35 assists came on the man advantage as well. The point being that Heiskanen did the majority, if not all, of his damage at even strength this past season. That is extremely impressive for a young player, and bodes very well for the future of the Stars back end.
Overall, Heiskanen had a fabulous rookie season in 2018-19. He was as good as advertised, and when his game did slide a bit, he made the adjustments required of NHLers. Heiskanen also earned an All-Star nod in his first season, but was wrongly left off of the Calder ballot.
No matter, Heiskanen will top the Norris ballot soon enough, and his 2018-19 season was a taste of what is to come.
Roman Polak was brought into Dallas to be the Stars seventh defenseman; serving as an insurance policy for a defense corp that looked solid on paper. It is well documented that nothing went according to plan when it came to the Stars defense in 2018-19. Thus, Polak was thrust into a role he was never supposed to be in, and given the circumstances, he performed well more times than not.
What Polak brought for the Stars on defense was a veteran presence on an otherwise young and inexperienced blue line. He also had a big body, that he used effectively to body opponents off of the puck before moving the puck smartly out of danger. Polak could also be counted on to kill penalties due to his smart reads with the puck, and propensity to block shots and act as clearing presence in the crease.
Polak isn’t going to be mistaken for a fast player, and playing with a generational defenseman in Heiskanen probably exposed more of what Polak can’t do, than what he can. However, the Stars aren’t in the post season without Roman Polak, and Stars fans should be quick to recognize that fact.
Through 77 games, Polak recorded 1 goal, 8 assists, for a total of 9 points. His one goal was of the highlight reel variety. Against the Ducks, Polak streaked in below off of the wall, cut hard to the Ducks net and lifted a backhand over Gibson’s glove.
I’m afraid that I didn’t do the goal justice, so here is a video of it.
As was mentioned above, Polak does have some glaring issues with his game in this fast National Hockey League. Polak would routinely find himself beat when faster players went wide on him; with his positioning not being able to keep up with the speed at times. As the games became tighter and the opponents had a chance to attack pairs, Polak would find himself in vulnerable positions against the other teams best players. This fact became painfully evident against the St. Louis Blues in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Blues were able to expose the Stars as a three defenseman team, with Polak not able to absorb the responsibility that a top four defenseman should be able to in a rough, seven-game series. The Blues, on the other hand, had that fourth defenseman and it showed. The Blues had what the Stars lost in training camp.
Overall, Polak was a serviceable player for the Stars who played a critical role for the club. He acted as a veteran on the blueline, brought professionalism to every shift, and rarely made the catastrophic mistake. He used his strengths to be successful on most nights and shifts, and he should be credited with helping the Stars make the playoffs. However, his limitations were on display in a league that is finding itself younger and faster by the year, and the Stars had to eat the bad that came with the good.
Overall Grade: B
The second pair for the Stars was serviceable for the majority of the season and playoffs. It was an accidental pairing that helped the club make a second round playoff run, and showed the Stars what they need to do to fix it. Heiskanen is a generational defenseman who is worthy of all of the praise he is receiving around the league. The young defender has areas in his game that need work, but so does everyone else. Polak to his credit, was a warrior for the Stars and gave them so much more than was expected. However, one can’t help but wonder where the Stars would have ended up had a younger and more skilled D man filled Polak’s place.