Deep Dive: Deliberating Dallas Defensive Decisions Diligently

The Stars had arguably the best defense in the NHL last year. Will they be able to build on top of that?

Training camp for the 2020-21 NHL season is in session, with the Dallas Stars’ season opener less than ten days away. Dallas is bringing back a roster almost identical to last year’s, but with injuries, a taxi squad, and some new faces, Rick Bowness still has some tough decisions to make regarding his lineup.

So we’ve starting a short series taking a hard look at the Stars’ training camp roster. We’re not particularly focused on predicting an opening night lineup, but rather looking at roster spot battles, player usage, that sort of thing.

Yesterday, we started things off with the team’s forwards. Today, let’s tackle the blueline.

Last season, the Stars had arguably the best defense in the entire NHL. It’s why they were two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup against the Tampa Bay Lightning despite being carved up by injuries. And the good news is that they’re returning essentially the same lineup for the new season.

Unlike with most teams, I’d argue that Dallas has two top defensive pairings, one of which being the well known combo of Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. Like most of the Stars’ core, both players performed under expectations during the regular season but thrived in the playoffs. Klingberg in particular was excellent — he was second on the team in both assists (17) and points (21) scored across 26 games played, as well as scoring two game winning goals.

With offense always a problem in Dallas, the Stars will be counting on Klingberg to continue his offensive production, including building upon his repertoire with Joe Pavelski on the power play. Lindell, meanwhile, will need to continue to anchor down the team’s penalty kill, which is missing some key contributors from last season (more on that later).

The real standout of the team’s blueline, however, is none other than Finnish superstar Miro Heiskanen. Leading the team in assists (20) and points (26) during the playoffs, he was (in my opinion) the clear cut MVP of the team and likely the Conn Smythe favorite should the Stars have won the Cup. That performance has put him on the map in the minds of fans and media alike, and his play will no doubt be closely scrutinized this season. Should he take yet another step forward, winning the Norris Trophy for the league’s best defenseman wouldn’t be out of the question.

While winning the Norris (or even being a Finalist) would be incredible for both Heiskanen and the Stars, it would also undoubtedly raise the price tag of Heiskanen’s next contract, as the young star is currently on the last year of his ELC. In a similar position is his defensive partner, Jamie Oleksiak, who will instead be a pending UFA. Since returning to Dallas after a brief stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Oleksiak has finally started to live up to his first round draft status. His play this year will no doubt factor heavily into whether the Stars re-sign him, or if he perhaps manages to price himself out of Dallas.

As for the third defensive pairing, that’s where things get a bit more tricky. Andrej Sekera was brought back on a two-year deal, but Roman Polak — who opted out of last year’s playoffs — decided not to return to the NHL. Similarly, Stephen Johns will not be playing in the upcoming season due to injury.

The Stars have several options for the final roster spot, including returning players Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley as well as their sole free agent acquisition, Mark Pysyk. But the most intriguing option would be defensive prospect Thomas Harley, who just got done playing for Team Canada at the World Juniors. Harley would give Dallas a strong puck-carrying defenseman on every line, at the cost of thinning out the penalty kill.

Complicating matters is that Harley will have to go through quarantine upon arriving in Dallas, and thus is expected to miss training camp altogether. But once he can officially join the team, expect him to get ample playing time the first couple weeks as a sort of “try out” for the NHL team.

In Harley’s case, it’s also important to note that once the OHL begins their season, he will no longer be eligible for the Stars’ taxi squad, as that is expected to count as the AHL for the purposes of the NHL/CHL Transfer Agreement. Until then, however, Harley can freely move back and forth between the squad and the main roster, as well as potentially play with the Texas Stars if the AHL season starts first.

Overall, the Dallas defense is in good shape. They have some decisions to make concerning who fills out the 6th and 7th slots, but otherwise their lineup is rock solid. Once again, the Stars should boast one of the best bluelines in the league — we’re not called Defending Big D for nothing, after all.