Two years ago, injuries decimated the Dallas Stars defense. That season, 14 different players saw action on the blueline, including Ben Gleason, who earned an entry level contract just months earlier while on a professional tryout at the Traverse City prospects tournament.
This year, it has been the forward core that has been hit. Tyler Seguin hasn’t seen action since last year’s playoffs, and Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz have had their time limited by nagging injuries. Joel Kiviranta has also spent time on the sidelines.
As a result, the Stars have iced a plethora of line combinations, but through it all, the defensive pairs have remained remarkably consistent: Esa Lindell and John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak and Miro Heiskanen, and a combination of Andrej Sekera, Mark Pysyk, and Joel Hanley. Taylor Fedun, the Stars eighth defender, has only played in two professional games this year, both on a conditioning stint with the Texas Stars.
The Stars defensive numbers this year certainly aren’t what they have been over the past several years. The progression (and regression) over the last three years shows a growing problem in the crease. Either Roman Polak deserves an apology, or this reflects a breakdown of rebound control with Ben Bishop out of the lineup.
The other option is to consider that this year, Stars head coach Rick Bowness began using Oleksiak and Heiskanen as the primary shutdown pair. Heiskanen’s overall numbers have suffered with the arrangement, and with the season in the balance, it may be time to look at alternatives, especially with the trade deadline approaching and Oleksiak’s status as a pending unrestricted free agent.
When Miro Heiskanen began his career, he was saddled with a physical, stay at home defender. Polak certainly didn’t contribute much on offense (being the inspiration behind the Polak Score aside), but he was reliably in a defensive posture, leaving almost all forays into the offensive zone solidly with Heiskanen.
Oleksiak doesn’t play that role, and within the pair, he tends to use his skating and puck handling in a decidedly offensive manner.
If I ever hate myself enough, I'm going to look at which defensemen has the most "wasted" controlled exits to prove a point about Miro Heiskanen.— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) March 22, 2021
In essence, the Stars have a shutdown pair consisting of two players who tend to join the rush. Perhaps this is by design, but in practice what it means is that Heiskanen in particular needs to limit his natural creativity either because he’s playing with Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa, and Andrew Cogliano, or because his partner is also making an offensive push.
That’s a somewhat roundabout way of saying that, perhaps - and in spite of their success during last years playoff run — Oleksiak isn’t the ideal partner for Heiskanen.
Which brings me to a separate and unusual topic: Joel Hanley. Has anyone been paying attention to how Hanley has become the de facto fifth defender on the Stars defensive depth chart?
Hanley has become a fixture on the third pair, getting time with both Sekera and Pysyk. He plays on the penalty kill, and in somewhat sheltered minutes leads the team in shot share percentage, and is near the top in most other categories.
There are a lot of good stories here.
How did Hanley, who wasn’t even a first pair guy in his 100 games with the Texas Stars, find a home as a regular on the Dallas blueline? Going into the playoff bubble, Hanley was an afterthought, behind Fedun and Sekera, and was probably only included in the group because Polak decided not to return. If there was any noise about a defender on the taxi squad, it was about Thomas Harley.
Beyond the NHLers that Hanley passed by in the bubble, you also have to look at the fate of Gavin Bayreuther (moved on to the Columbus organization) and Dillon Heatherington (now in the KHL), both of whom had a more well-defined path from Texas to the NHL. There’s also the well documented story of Julius Honka, who now finds himself pulling third pair time in the AHL.
Oleksiak, since his return from the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been better than could be expected. He’s also a pending UFA who, based on his comparables, is going to be up for a decent pay raise, with term.
Given everything presented, here’s what would set Dallas up for better long term success and get the most out of their future Norris trophy contender. As much as it hurts in the near-term, Dallas should move on from Oleksiak. That gives the team the ability to pull in a draft choice and use the rest of this season to figure out a better long-termpartner for Heiskanen.
That could be found internally with Hanley. His game matches up with Heiskanen’s strengths. A dependable left defender would open up Heiskanen to fully carry the puck up the ice, and stay with it. In addition, a Hanley re-signing (if it works) is a contract that fits into what Dallas needs for salary cap purposes. There are some obvious questions: does this make the Stars too small? Can Hanley handle the extra time and/or better competition?
This is the type of year to see if those questions can be answered.
There is more to come about the Dallas Stars blueline and the future. If you want a taste, listen to today’s Stargazing podcast, after which - time allowing - we’ll take a deeper look at the organization’s defensive prospects.