Analysis: Small Budget, Great Player Era Draws to a Close for the Dallas Blue Line

The Stars need to pay Miro Heiskanen, find him a reliable partner, and prepare for the end of John Klingberg’s team-friendly deal. Where does all of this lead?

Two weeks ago, we took a look at the Dallas Stars and the questions about netminders for the 2021-2022 season. Dallas does need to move from three NHL goaltenders to two, but in most reasonable cases, the Stars will be able to get everything in order for a cap hit in the  $6 million range.

Moving on to the defense, the abundance of talent on the Stars roster is at the point where it needs to be managed to the salary cap. At the top of the list for this year is signing Miro Heiskanen to a new contract and making a decision about where free agent Jamie Oleksiak fits in the team’s future plans.

Looking down the road, John Klingberg’s team friendly deal disappears at the end of the season and Thomas Harley continues to improve his game, pushing for a place in the Stars top four.

As with anything Stars related, this needs to be evaluated within the context of a team that is still driven by an aging leadership core and an older coach who’s contract is up at the end of the year.

Let’s take a look at the individual parts.

Esa Lindell (27 years old, shoots left, four years at $5.8 million, full no move clause as of July 1)

Lindell has turned into a polarizing figure on the Dallas blue line, primarily due to a perceived overpay on his contract. Ignoring the cost, he is a minute eating, defense first top four player. There are some deficiencies - he is vulnerable to speed on the edge and he has a propensity to make safe clearances up the boards. He also eats heavy minutes on a decidedly average penalty kill.

There are some valid points there, but absent something cataclysmic, Lindell is part of the Dallas top four for the remainder of his contract.

Miro Heiskanen (21 years old, shoots left, restricted free agent)

Heiskanen has been a key to the Stars defense since he first stepped onto the ice in Dallas. Ideally, the team could lock him up with a full eight year deal, which Evolving Hockey has coming in at just over $8 million. Alternatively, the Stars could look for a bridge deal, which in the short-term could save about $2 million, but would open up the potential for free agency negotiations and a significantly larger contract upon conclusion.

Dallas may not be able to afford the full eight year deal, and Heiskanen can likely add to the size of his next contract by pushing for a three to five year bridge deal. Keeping Heiskanen happily in Dallas has to be job one for Jim Nill at this point, which leads to the next decision.

Jamie Oleksiak (28 years old, shoots left, unrestricted free agent)

Since returning to the fold after a stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Oleksiak has shown hints of his first round pedigree. During the bubble playoff run in Edmonton, Oleksiak and Heiskanen were a dynamic pairing, driving significant offense while taking on a lockdown pair role.

Whether the pairing plays to each players strength is a point of contention. There is certainly evidence that defenders playing on their weak side (ie., left shot playing right defense - see video link above starting at 57 minutes for Connor Jung’s presentation on this at SEAHAC 2019). Oleksiak certainly has a propensity for jumping into the play, which places Heiskanen in a more passive, defense oriented role.

Stars management likes Oleksiak and has shown every indication that they want to sign him, but at a predicted cap hit of $4 million x four years, it’s a big commitment. A player like Adam Larsson could be had for a similar contract, which would put Heiskanen on the left side playing with a more reliable shutdown partner.

Any free agency discussion at this point needs to emphasize playing opposite Heiskanen for the life of the contract.

Sami Vatanen (30 years old, shoots right, unrestricted free agent)

Dallas saw a glimpse of what Vatanen could offer late last season after the team claimed him on waivers from the New Jersey Devils. He saw the bulk of his time on the third pair with Andrej Sekera or Joel Hanley. Evolving Hockey shows the most likely contract in the $3 million, three year range, which would save a bit for the Stars, but the team never really gave him much time to demonstrate his ability to fit in with the team in a top four role.

Given what Dallas saw over limited action, Vatanen could be a compromise option if the team moves on from Oleksiak. It would be just as easy to move on.

John Klingberg (28 years old, shoots right, one year at $4.25 million)

No disrespect to Klingberg by not discussing him sooner, but the Stars know what he brings to the team as their most creating offensive threat on the blue line. The existing deal is a bargain, but come next year, he’s due for a raise as an unrestricted free agent. Contract amounts for Klingberg likely start in the mid-seven million dollar range and could go up if a team other than Dallas needs a dynamic offensive defender.

Klingberg brings something to the Stars that nobody else on the roster can bring and there is no reason to think that they will move on once his contract expires.

Andrej Sekera (35 years old, shoots left, one year at $1.5 million)

Dallas brought Sekera in on a low risk deal after he was bought out by the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, Edmonton is still paying him $1.5 million a year for the next two seasons, so Dallas paying him an extra $1.5 million puts him in a pretty high pay range for a third pair defender.

Age hasn’t been kind to Sekera’s offense, and to a lesser degree, his defense, but he does bring a physical presence to the third pair, and like Lindell, he eats a significant number of minutes on the penalty kill.

If the Stars are considering Thomas Harley as an NHLer for the coming season, its likely as a partner with Sekera.

Joel Hanley (30 years old, shoots left, two years at $700,000)

Hanley isn’t big, he isn’t fast, he doesn’t score, but he has settled in as a regular contributor to the Stars blue line when he gets time. Sitting as the odd man out doesn’t seem to effect his game, and regardless of who he is paired with, he finds a way to match his game to their skill set.

At a league minimum salary, he is exactly the type of player that the Stars need fill out a roster that contains several high end salaries.

Thomas Harley (19 years old, shoots left, three years at $863,333)

With the OHL season cancelled due to the pandemic, Harley spent the 2020-2021 season with the Texas Stars. There were some growing pains as he played with higher level, professional talent. As the season progress, his defense improved and he continued to show the ability to skate, move the puck and contribute to the offense.

Harley could certainly use another year in the AHL as the Stars number one defender, but he’s shown progress to the point where he could just as easily spend his year in the NHL. Harley will likely see time at both levels, but with the NHL squad, he’ll see sheltered minutes on the third pair.

Mark Pysyk, other free agents, and prospects

Pysyk can fill in as either a defender or as a fourth line winger. He’s a free agent, and salary projections have him around $1 million on a one-year deal. Dallas probably has enough depth on the blue line, but Pysyk’s signing last year was as a safety blanket for the team, so the same reasoning could apply to the upcoming year.

Other free agency discussion needs to take place within the context of what happens to Jamie Oleksiak. If Oleksiak moves on, Dallas has a hole to fill in the top four. They can either do that by replacing him with a similar deal, or by taking a risk with a lesser deal. Someone like Dougie Hamilton is off the table, as is someone like Brandon Montour - the cost just wouldn’t fit into the budget. A player like Adam Larsson could fit in as a defensive defending partner for Heiskanen, or there are several other less costly options, the best of whom might be Jake McCabe. Larsson would be my choice, for the handedness and his shut down abilities.

The Stars have a prospect pool that could easily be available, but the team has shown little inclination to move anyone up from Texas. Last year, we saw Dillon Heatherington and Gavin Bayreuther move on to Europe and the Columbus Blue Jackets respectively. There are a few other defenders with Texas that, given an opportunity, could be ready for some time in the NHL.

Ben Gleason is a left shot puck mover who can also play the right side. He has been with Texas for three years. Last year, his defense solidified - he was less reckless in the offensive zone and by the end of the year, was a solid partner for Thomas Harley.

Jerad Rosberg is a physical left defender who signed with the Stars after finishing up four years at Michigan State. Likewise, Ryan Shea came to Texas after four years at Northeastern. Like most other team prospects, he’s a left shot. He plays more of a hybrid role, and though he struggled a bit in his first full year in the AHL, he made this years US World team where he saw action in three games and got an assist.

Taylor Fedun and Julius Honka are both gone and Joe Cecconi hasn’t progressed to the point where he’s a reliable shut down defender. A bit disappointing, since the Stars have few right shot prospects on the blue line.

A Stars defensive prospect hasn’t made it out of Texas for more than five years, which reflects poorly on so many parts of the organization.

Final Thoughts

In the next 12 months, Dallas has a chance to wrap up their top four for the foreseeable future. It would leave the team with a pricey blue line, but one that would be both defensively formidable and offensively threatening. For the coming season, my preference would be to see the lineup as follows:

Miro Heiskanen - Adam Larsson
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Thomas Harley - Andrej Sekera
Joel Hanley

Harley should get time in the AHL as needed. What he needs is repetition and confidence, and that’s most likely going to come from learning some hard lessons in the NHL and then working on the fixes as the top defender with Texas. Hanley can fill in on the third pair, as needed, with Gleason, Rosburg or Shea getting some time with the NHL club on a fill-in basis.

Total cost is in the $24 million range, which is not out of the ordinary for a playoff NHL team, especially one that depends so much on their defensive game while driving offense from the back end. Swap out Larsson for Oleksiak and you’re in the same range, but Oleksiak’s size and skating is just begging a general manager in the NHL to overpay.