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Dallas Stars Preseason Battles: How the Third Defense Pairing Might Look with Taylor Fedun, Jamie Oleksiak, and/or Roman Polák

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Preseason Drama or Fait Accompli?

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you’re looking for a mini sweep or the big one, the goal is the same: earn the money.

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If you missed the Stars’ third preseason game last night in Colorado, let me summarize with this: Dallas beat a pretty decent Avs lineup with Mattias Janmark, Radek Faksa, Jason Dickinson, a third defense pairing, and a swath of players either too early or too late in development to be more than borderline NHL candidates out of training camp.

How did they do it? Well, much the same way Dallas won a lot of games down the stretch last year: Goaltending.

Jake Oettinger was fantastic, and Landon Bow continued to remind us that he would be a fully capable NHL backup goaltender if the Stars didn’t already have the best backup in the NHL on the roster.

Unlike last season, though, this wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. You’d expect this shell of a Dallas lineup to get shelled by the likes of MacKinnon, Kadri, Landeskog, Girard, Makar, and so on. This was not a fair fight, and the score, likewise, was not a fair reflection of the blows dealt. It is the preseason. The Stars have some organizational depth at goaltending for the first time in over a decade. Nothing wrong with being positive.

Still, there are meaningful competitions taking place within the meaningless contests that we call the preseason, and one of them is happening on the blue line, as Mike Heika wrote about last night:

That said, there is a large group of blueliners who would love to make the opening night roster and might even work their way onto the third pairing depending on strategy or performance.

Taylor Fedun leads that group. The 31-year-old played 54 regular season games last season, and brings both a steady hand and a little bit of skill. Fedun was acquired from Buffalo last season after injuries set in for the Stars, and said returning this season makes things a little bit easier.

Oh, and one other thing:

Fedun played Thursday with Oleksiak, and that could be a good pair going forward. Fedun logged 22:34, and had one shot on goal and one hit. Fedun is right-handed and could offer a different element than Polak, who also is right-handed but weighs 35 pounds more.

It’s probably a safe bet to say Oleksiak and Polák will round out the defense come opening night, given that the Stars gave Polák a decent raise to return this summer. Oleksiak, meanwhile, cost Jim Nill a 4th-round pick to acquire last year and is signed for two more seasons at $2.1 million per. These aren’t players you scratch without cause.

Still, there are some telling details in how these players were used last season by Jim Montgomery.

First, let’s look at Roman Polák’s last three seasons of usage. The black line (average ice time per game) is tiered, with the lower pink rectangle being third pair-minutes, and the top one being first pairing.

from HockeyViz.com

As you can see, both Mike Babcock and Jim Montgomery started Polák off in a role on the third pairing, only to give him more ice as the season went on (this is what my terrible and inaccurate yellow highlighter slope is mean to show). So, as much as folks can talk about how This Year Is Different, I still have a hard time not believing that Rick Bowness will throw Polák right back up beside Heiskanen the minute Sekera stumbles or needs some time off. And, given how good Heiskanen is, that pair will likely still continue to look good enough for the coaches to stick with regardless of who’s on the right side.

We’re not here to decry Roman Polák; he clearly earns good coaches’ trust despite putting up very bad metrics in terms of shots allowed and expected goals against. Some systems can make goalies look better than they are, and some goalies can cover up for their defensemen. Maybe Roman Polák gets hemmed in his own zone and allows a lot of shots from quality scoring areas. And by “maybe,” I mean “definitely.”

From https://evolving-hockey.com/

But we’ve talked about this before. At the end of the day, as long as he’s doing other things coaches like, and as long as the shots he gives up are being saved at a good rate, you can bet he’ll keep getting ice time. Humans react to outcomes more drastically than to flawed processes, and coaches (and fans) are no different.

So that brings us back to Oleksiak and Fedun, whom I tend to think will be the starting combatants for that final spot on the blue line. Fedun is not waiver-exempt, so that means he’ll be in the NHL unless someone else blows the coaching staff away. But how did said coaching staff use Oleksiak and Fedun last year?

Well, Oleksiak arrived, spelling the end of Julius Honka’s days in the lineup, and the big defenseman was immediately paired with Taylor Fedun...until the arrival of Ben Lovejoy, who primarily supplanted Oleksiak, with Fedun getting scratched here and there until falling out of favor in the playoffs, where the Stars believe Oleksiak’s size would have been a deciding factor against the Blues, because apparently Polák and Lovejoy’s size wasn’t quite enough on its own. But injuries meant the Stars didn’t have many options, and while Joel Hanley and Dillon Heatherington got their reps, it was clear that the Stars were just trying to patch a bigger hole with smaller changes. The Blues’ depth overwhelmed everyone but Ben Bishop in the final games of the series, and you know the rest.

But before the Lovejoy trade, Fedun and Oleksiak’s pairing was fine, if not fantastic.

They were a slightly more exciting version of the average Dallas defense pairing last year: slightly below water, but not disastrously so. If we see the same pairing this year at some point, I’d expect a fairly similar outcome, because I have a human brain that can only predict outcomes based on past experience.

But if Roman Polák’s spot in the lineup is a given—and I think it probably is, especially without Stephen Johns—then we’re more likely to see one of Oleksiak or Fedun paired with Polák (or Andrej Sekera, should he end up on the third pairing). And while third-pairing minutes aren’t the most critical thing to evaluate in a long season with plenty of changes sure to come, they are one of the few things that preseason can determine. And if we are going to subject ourselves to preseason hockey, we might as well be watching for events that will mean something for the future.

To that end, one thing I will say about last night is that Taylor Fedun looked a bit slicker over the course of the game, but he did have one decent gaffe on the Avs’ lone goal, where he quit skating just enough to let his man beat him to the front of the net for a rebound goal:

So you wonder if, in the coaches’ minds, events like this don’t reinforce the risk-averse tendencies that dominated lineup decisions last year. Yes, Fedun is the better passer and playmaker between him and Oleksiak, but if his shifts aren’t creating actual goals—and with the Stars’ dreadful bottom-six scoring, that may well be the case again—then you can see the coaches saying, “Well, better to have size and position and live to fight another day with the big guns.”

In fairness, I have been irrepairably jaded by the events of 2015-16, when the Stars showed the entire league what overwhelming offense could do even with abysmal goaltending. In a vacuum, the “safer” strategy is to aim for net positive outcomes, not low-event outcomes. Especially with solid goaltending, the Stars would be better-served to open up games a bit and trust Ben Bishop and company rather than hoping to score three goals on 20 shots while still giving up 35 against.

Still, you can see that, in their partial seasons played in Dallas last year, Oleksiak and Fedun had fairly similar impacts on the game. To a certain extent, this was by virtue of playing so many minutes together, but nonetheless, I don’t think either would be a disaster. Oleksiak’s size can help him to recover from imprecise decision-making, and Fedun’s skating and awareness can help him to compensate for less reach and strength. Put either of them with a dependable player like Joel Hanley, and I think you’d see somewhat similar results, with an edge to Fedun.

However, if you’re talking about pairing one of them with Roman Polák, that’s a tough call. While Fedun’s years on the disaster in Buffalo don’t look great, his small sample of games tracked last season suggest (along with his solid shot metrics) that he can get the puck out of his own end consistently more effectively than Jamie Oleksiak, while Oleksiak is the better blue line defender, but not very good at getting the puck out once it’s gotten into the defensive zone:

Charts courtesy of CJ Turtoro, @CJTdevil

Obviously you don’t weight all of those bars equally, especially on a third pairing that will be deployed selectively. You can play around with the tool yourself if you want to look at different seasons. Still, I will say that Fedun’s higher percentage of successful zone exits begin to suggest, for my money, that he is better at reading plays and anticipating the puck’s movement than Jamie Oleksiak in a way that more than compensates for his smaller size. Oleksiak, meanwhile, has gotten quite adept at using his size to disrupt zone entries against, as well as joining the play to assist zone entries for (though how much of that is due to playing behind Pittsburgh’s forward group is up for debate). Both players have strengths and weakness, so you have to decide what’s more important for your group, for that game.

But if we’re talking about someone whose strengths and weaknesses pair well with Roman Polák, well...

Yeah, it’s not great. Ultimately, I think I’d prefer Fedun, as a pairing of Oleksiak and Polák will likely start a lot of shifts in their zone (especially with a few new rules increasing the number of times a team isn’t allowed to change for a defensive zone faceoff), which makes Oleksiak’s entry breakup skills irrelevant for that shift. Fedun at least has a decent ability to get the puck out with possession, which is something a pairing with Polák on it will need.

The Stars do have other options, too. Thomas Harley is probably a season or two away, but Gavin Bayreuther is no slouch. Even Joel Hanley showed that he and Taylor Fedun could be a surprisingly great pairing during John Klingberg’s absence last year.

Special teams is a big thing for this coaching staff, and I expect they will want to have four defenders they trust on the penalty kill. With Lindell, Polák and Heiskanen likely to see decent minutes there again, the determining factor may well be who Rick Bowness trusts to absorb Ben Lovejoy’s PK minutes. Oleksiak didn’t see much time at all on the PK last year, but he and Fedun both got large chunks of PK time last night, with Harley and Djuse being exempted from the kill in this one. So, for the moment, I think it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Oleksiak or Fedun is the leader in the clubhouse right now. My money is slightly tilted towards Oleksiak after that goal against last night, Fedun’s righthandedness (which woudl mean him playing his off-side with Polák), and the natural preference for size. But I really do think that spot is still up for grabs between Fedun and Oleksiak over the remaining games of the preseason.

We probably spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about the marginal parts of the lineup, much to Jim Lites’s chagrin. But with so much of the lineup set in stone, these are the places most likely to see tinkering and changes for the moment. And in close games, as we saw last night, even the smallest change can mean the difference between victory and defeat, in perception or reality. Not that either of those much matters until October 3rd, but they don’t not matter, either.