Dallas Stars Defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka Making Case For NHL

The Stars have a heck of a competition on the blue line and one surprising name has put himself at the top.

Coming into training camp and the preseason, the Dallas Stars were looking to promote competition on a deep team that wanted to build off the success of last year. This was a team that had made an effort at rebuilding the organizational depth in the developmental system and had done so rather successfully, while at the same time also finding a way to add depth at the NHL level without sacrificing what had been gained through the draft.

One of those battles is on defense, with a number of young defensemen now ready to compete for NHL playing time who have found a way to step it up so far in the preseason. Defense has been the Stars' weakest spot overall the past few years and while there were team improvements overall, there's a definite desire to see how some of the young guns might fare if brought up to the next level.

The names coming into camp that were constantly being bandied about were Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, John Klingberg, Kevin Connauton or even Julius Honka. Klingberg and Nemeth seemingly had the lead before any hockey was played purely based on pedigree and recent history alone, especially considering Nemeth's time in the NHL playoffs and his performance for the Texas Stars in the run for the Calder Cup.

Yet there was one name that wasn't included much and who has staked his claim at the top of the list of all prospective young defensemen this preseason: Jyrki Jokipakka.

The big Finnish blueliner was a complete unknown when nabbed at the end of the of the draft in 2011, not having appeared on any draft guides or rankings and basically becoming just 'another name' in the organizational depth for the Stars. Yet immediately after being drafted Jokipakka stepped up into a major role for Ilkes of the SM-Liiga as an 18-year old was skating top minutes in one of the best hockey leagues in the world.

Correction: Jokipakka's age. It should be noted he's a bit older than most prospects, something even I had forgotten about.

Perhaps it was the luck of playing for a poor team, but Jokipakka was on the top pairing for Ilves for two straight seasons and saw plenty of hockey in all situations -- and availed himself very nicely in the process. The numbers weren't impressive and his plus/minus showed just how much of a struggle that team was under, but the experience paid off in droves once the big Finn made his way to North America.

Jokipakka stepped onto the ice at Cedar Park and was the same as he ever was -- a smooth-skating defenseman who was solid in both ends and who played big minutes when his team needed him. There were moments of struggle in the postseason when the competition was ratcheted to a higher level and some feel he might have taken a slight step back, yet this preseason it's clear that Jokipakka used that experience to help take his game to another level.

Through two preseason games and through all of camp, Jokipakka was the clear leader among the young defensemen vying for a spot in the NHL. He was consistent, rarely made mistakes and even flashed some noteworthy moves on offense that speaks to the thought we still haven't seen everything that this young defenseman is capable of.

On Monday night Jokipakka wowed the home crowd with a nifty head-fake, fake shot and then pass to Fiddler coming down the back door for one of the prettier goals you'll see in the preseason, and then on Wednesday night played over 27 minutes next to Alex Goligoski and looked the part of an NHL defenseman getting top pairing minutes in all phases of the game (he played well over six minutes on the PK).

He's big and physical, though not overtly so, and holds his own in the corners and in front of the net. Smart plays with the puck and the right mentality of when to pinch and when to track back has his gap control at high levels already -- and we're not the only ones taking notice.

The question now becomes where does he fit in on the depth chart heading into the season. Not having Brenden Dillon signed makes this a much more interesting puzzle to figure out, as it leaves two spots open but for how long -- and is Nemeth or Connauton absolutely locked into that final spot when/if Dillon returns?

So far, it's safe to say that Jokipakka is outperforming both but there is something to say that should he not be on the team straight out of camp -- he'll certainly get his shot soon this season. There will be injuries, there are potential roster moves that likely will be made, and the fact that he's become part of this conversation at all speaks to just how impressive his career has been to this point.