Andrej Sekera played just under 25 minutes in his first action as a Dallas Star, and by the reaction of coaches and fans, his partnership with Miro Heiskanen is promising. If, and this is a big if, he can stay healthy and this promising start continues to blossom, the Stars may have found a productive second defensive pairing for the upcoming season.
Coming off a season where Dallas sported a top-five team defense, there are perhaps more questions for the upcoming season than would be expected.
The top pairing of Esa Lindell and John Klingberg still have their critics, and there are certain ways of looking at the analytics to understand why. The argument is that Lindell drains all of the offense out of Klingberg’s game and that without Klingberg, Lindell’s impact is Polak-ian.
With Lindell having signed a six-year contract extension in May with an annual cap hit of $5.8 million, the Stars have made a substantial commitment to the pairing. In some ways, it’s difficult to review defensive impact for a defensive defender like Lindell since so many of the advanced statistics that are generally available are slanted toward offensive abilities. Defensive metrics usually end up being manually calculated; however when a detailed review is made of Klingberg and Lindell, the pair does show a remarkable synergism.
A healthy Sekera paired with Heiskanen has a chance of giving the Stars a balanced second pair. In his last healthy year, Sekera’s numbers were solid, demonstrating a positive offensive impact while maintaining solid defensive numbers. The question is whether he can overcome two years of aging while he was rehabilitating from a torn ACL and achilles tendon.
If Dallas can maintain those top two pairings, they have multiple options for the third pairing. Given the current state of contracts, expect that Roman Polak and Jamie Oleksiak will make the opening day roster. If the expectation is that the two make up the final pair, there is only limited data on how they have performed together, but what is there isn’t good. Simply put, in 17 minutes together, they gave up two goals and their on-net shot share was in the 30 percent range. The initial impression on multiple fronts is not positive.
With the preseason in full swing and the potential for a Julius Honka trade still out there, the Stars could still pull in a replacement from another team. There are also multiple options for players already under contract within the organization, several of whom could contribute immediately.
Taylor Fedun is the most likely candidate. In addition to being a right shot, he played 137 minutes with Oleksiak last year with solid offensive and defensive results. A rocky performance in the playoffs probably kept him from being a shoo-in for this year’s lineup, but he is cost-effective at only $737,500. He is also not waiver-exempt, so keeping him up is safe on the off-chance that another team would pick up his contract.
Ben Gleason has shown flair since his first outing in last year’s Traverse City prospects tournament. He shows confidence, can move the puck and also can handle the point on the power play. He tends to meet the eye test, but his first preseason game on third pair was pretty disastrous when looking at shot share.
Gavin Bayreuther got off to a hot start in his 19 games with the Stars in 2018, but his minutes faded toward the end of his stay. Bayreuther played a bulk of his time with Polak, and in their 197 minutes together, they were solid but not spectacular. There were some issues in defensive crease coverage, but for the most part Bayreuther’s transition play and his shooting kept the pairing balanced.
As a 25-year-old, Emil Djuse showed poise and a solid game at Traverse City. He has several years playing in the top Swedish league and some international experience, but most likely needs some adjustment time to North American ice and some evaluation at the AHL level.
Dillon Heatherington has developed into a solid AHL defender and has 11 games of NHL regular season experience. With Oleksiak out, he also drew in for one playoff game, which shows at least a modicum of trust from the coaching staff. He is likely only an option if one of the stay-at-home defenders gets injured.
Joel Hanley has 38 games of NHL experience, and played one playoff game last year. Hanley showed some good chemistry with Fedun last year, but his strength is more as a player who isn’t going to do anything disastrous. That is a useful quality, but given the other options that the Stars have, it’s not one that is going to move him to the front of the line.
Reese Scarlett missed almost the entirety of last season with a torn ACL. He has improved over the years in the AHL, but he’s in the conversation primarily because he’s a right shot.
Joseph Cecconi has been injured for Traverse City, training camp and the preseason. The pedigree is there after four solid seasons at the University of Michigan, but Cecconi is going to need to find his place on the depth chart through his play with the Texas Stars.
The Stars have once again reached a spot where they have a solid group of homegrown defensive prospects. The last time they were in this spot, the pool of talent seeped away. Esa Lindell found his spot, but Jamie Oleksiak, Julius Honka, and Patrik Nemeth never grew into their expected potential.
The advantage that this year’s Stars have is that many of their prospects are still waiver eligible. Much of the prospect talk this year has been about forwards, but unless a Denis Gurianov, Ty Dellandrea, or Joel Kiviranta forces their way onto the opening day lineup, Dallas may be better served by working out their defensive pairings and rotation at the start of the season.
That could mean keeping eight defenders to start the year; not because of concerns about losing prospects to waivers, but because several defensive prospects are currently in a better position to contribute to wins than the forward prospects.