On June 6, the Dallas Stars inked defenseman Roman Polak to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. The move was… divisive, to say the least. Stars fans, understandably excited after their team took the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues into Game 7 double overtime, entered the offseason with visions of missing pieces and flashy free agents. Polak was not that, emphatically so, but despite the powerful reaction, the contract was not a mistake. GM Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars do not deserve to be raked over hot coals. At least not yet. Really, the deal by itself is pretty much a non-issue, but it will become, for better or worse, a fascinating litmus test on the Stars’ offseason dealings.
Allow me to explain.
Let’s start with what the Dallas Stars retained. Last season, Roman Polak played an average of 19:10 for the league’s second-stingiest defense. Cut from the classic “Stay At Home D” mold, Polak started 68.7% of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone and averaged 2:38 on the penalty kill. He blocked 152 shots (second on the team to Esa Lindell), threw 191 hits (second to Blake Comeau), was a +6 (tied for sixth with John Klingberg) and scored nine points (17th on the team). One layer deeper, Polak registered a 43.7% Corsi-For at even-strength and a 102 PDO.
This is the part where I tell you I’m not arguing Polak’s play merited the extension. Relax.
Stephen Johns did not play last season. Marc Methot was limited to nine games, and John Klingberg played just 64 games. The defense was a M*A*S*H unit in other words. At the time he put pen to paper, Roman Polak was, arguably, the seventh, if not the eighth rostered defender. He was a veteran insurance policy, who was signed to demonstrate off-ice professionalism, nurture a relatively young defense, and owing to his experience, be able to contribute on short notice in the case of injury. Break glass in case of emergency.
In light of that, it’s fair to consider Dallas’ overall defensive result in any full evaluation of Polak’s performance. The Dallas Stars made the playoffs despite their offense. Brutal, sure, but the group finished 29th of 31 teams in terms of goals-for. On the flip side of the ledger, only the New York Islanders surrendered fewer than Dallas’ 202 goals, and only four teams (New Jersey, Arizona, Columbus, and Tampa Bay) bettered their 82.8% penalty kill.
During the playoffs, things got even better. Dallas led the league with a “why even bother” 94.6% penalty kill and a 2.31 GA/GP (second only to Boston). For all of his individual shortcomings, Polak was a part of a backend that carried Dallas deep into the playoffs. Roman Polak played a far larger role than anyone could possibly have imagined last season, and everything worked out.
This is not me saying the Stars should tempt fate. Not by a long shot. What I’m saying is that the expectations for Roman Polak should be the same this year as they were last year. If things get nasty, if guys start going down, he’s a player head coach Jim Montgomery can plug in without too much handholding. Roman Polak is not going to be over-awed by Colorado’s power play or Patrick Laine’s one-timer.
I called this deal a litmus test earlier. At $1.75 million it prohibits the Stars from basically nothing. They still need at least one more scoring winger, and they still need help in the top four. Roman Polak is not going to be the reason Nill whiffs on extending Mats Zuccarello, for example. If the Dallas Stars signed Polak to play 70+ games and 19+ minutes, then yes, break out the pitchforks. However, if they signed Polak to serve as a band-aid should other players struggle or get hurt, or even to play limited minutes on the third pairing, then we’re having an entirely different conversation.
Let’s save our outrage until the team earns it.