Matching Minors: Is Julius Honka the Prime Trade Candidate on a Stacked Dallas Stars Blue Line?
Wes and Robert sit down for a nice, civil mud-slinging session about top prospect Julius Honka.
Welcome to a brand new feature in which two of our writers have a little back-and-forth about a pressing issue with the team. No matter how emotional the arguments get, just remember: hockey is a very big deal, and if you disagree with someone about it, you need to prise an agreement out of them at all costs. That is what this is all about.
Wes: For the sake of argument, let's say I own a shop that specializes in fine, high-end mustache grooming supplies. It's a successful shop, modern fashion trends being what they are. Now, in addition to this shop, I've come into possession of a little retail space in a different area of town. I'm considering putting in a second mustache grooming shop. Is that a good idea?
Before you answer, let me ask a few follow up questions that are totally and clearly related.
1 - Will there ever be another Derian Hatcher?
Wes: SI recently wrote an article speaking to the evolution of the position in the NHL. It's easy to look at teams like the Kings (Drew Doughty), the Hawks (Duncan Keith), and Blues (Kevin Shattenkirk) and see there's a trend developing towards mobility and puck-handling versus brute strength. The emergence of John Klingberg in Dallas is another great example of this, as is our hopefulness about the development of Julius Honka.
I think we've reached a tipping point. Coaching is so good, systems are so structured, that the only real way to find offensive success is to move around obstacles rather than through them. To do that, you need defenders that can start a counterattack, or work the cycle. Throw in the fact that Losing and Hitting are two things you can only do without the puck in the NHL, and I think the traditional "Defensive Defenseman" is fading away as a successful player type.
In the modern NHL, you aren't cool unless you've got a puck-moving blueliner.
Robert: No, there won't be another Hatcher. Just as the moniker "two-way player" is often applied to forwards who are rather inept offensively, the "defensive defenseman" is likewise not what he used to be.
Shea Weber is a good example of what a modern Derian Hatcher might look like, at least to some extent. He is given tons of starts in his own zone, and he uses his size to separate players from the puck. While his possession metrics are a great point of discussion, his goal totals add even more value to him than he would otherwise have. So I guess I just said that today's Derian Hatcher would be Shea Weber, except with less power play time to boost his goal totals (although Hatcher had a few PPG of his own back in the day).
Aside: as mobility from the back end (stop giggling, Wes) becomes more and more necessary, I think teams will continue to realize the immense value of a player like Alex Goligoski. Extreme size no longer guarantees success for today's blueliner, but skating and intelligence can elevate almost any skater to the upper echelon of defensemen. None of Keith, Karlsson, Subban, Suter or Doughty is over 6 ft. 1 in, and I don't think that's a coincidence.
Wes: "Immense value of a player like Alex Goligoski" is the sort of statement that will get you beat up in the comments section, even though I agree with you. With that said, do you remember the end of the Anaheim series, in particular the game-tying-goal, and wonder if things have swung too far? Do you think Hatch lets anyone drive the Dallas crease the way the Ducks did? No, there's likely a felony on the play, but the crease stays clean.
I guess the point I'm getting to is balance. Everybody needs an Alex Goligoski, but does anybody need six Alex Goligoskis (Goligoski? Goligoskgeese)?
Robert: If it were possible to be convicted of a felony against the Ducks, Trevor Daley would be serving time right now.
2 - Has there ever been a better time to almost be in the NHL?
Wes: We just witnessed the McDavid v Eickel insanity. We're also in the middle of watching about two dozen defensive saviors make their way through the Stars' minor league structure, lamenting Scott Glennie's failure to justify a first round selection, and worrying over the impact injuries might have to a pair of recent first rounders (Valeri Nichushkin and Jack Campbell). None of these players, barring perhaps Nuke, has made a significant impact at the NHL level, and yet they dominate "how this team gets better" conversations far more than guys who are actually on the squad.
Think about Jamie Oleksiak. An uneven start to his NHL career has sent his perceived value into a tailspin. Prospects are like new cars, or action figures... if you're going to take one out of its original packaging, you better be sure you're going to get 100k miles before all is said and done.
Robert: I don't know that you can talk about the high value of younger players without bringing the salary cap into it. Yes, players won't always pan out--and I will always say the Stars were more unlucky with Glennie than they were foolhardy for drafting him--but just about every successful team needs at least a few contributors who are providing surplus value relative to their contracts in order for the club to have success. Most goalies and top skaters are going to be making at least market value, and bottom-six roles usually feature at least a couple of slightly overpaid veterans (or unfathomably overpaid, in Philadelphia's case). All of this means that a team needs to get some help from players who haven't yet earned a big payday, so naturally the anticipation is going to be there.
The Stars don't need to hit the jackpot on all their young players; but they will need a least a couple of them to become solid contributors during the remainder of the Lehtonen/Niemi/Hemsky/Oduya contracts. Goligoski and Demers are up for new deals after this season, and Dallas simply won't have tons of cap space to use in replacing or extending them.
Wes: I don't actually disagree with you, and yet you're wrong. Weird, right?
Young players outperforming rookie or depth deals are a critical piece of any contender. They're the only way you can afford to retain the guys that have already hit their prime earning years. You're not wrong, for this thing to work, guys are going to have to step up.
I'll put on my pessimist hat for a moment and wonder if the Stars are really as set as we think. Defensively, sure, but who is the next great offensive talent? Ritchie is a candidate, but Faksa and even Dickinson to a degree are starting to draw praise for their complete games. Are we worried that's just early-onset expectation managing? Before Glennie washed out didn't we read a lot about how he'd re-invented his game as a third line specialist?
If prospects are just lottery tickets anyways, doesn't it make sense, given the makeup of this particular organization, to try and flip a defensive ticket for a forward or goalie?
Robert: Yes and no. I think it makes sense to use some of your accrued youth to "purchase" a player like Spezza or Seguin, but Julius Honka seems to be more than just a ticket. Honka is a Visa Black Card, and you are a nouveau riche with Amazon Prime. Some pretty sweet stuff is almost certainly going to arrive if you don't flush the card down the ol' turlet; it's just a matter of whether you'll have room once the sweet stuff gets there.
3 - Where does Julius Honka play?
Wes: Julius Honka finally made the jump to Cedar Park last season, and did little to dampen fan enthusiasm for his future as a Star. Except for me, I guess.
Honka profiles as a slick, puck-moving defenseman. He makes high IQ decisions and uses skill rather than size to diffuse the other team's attack. It's very easy to project him as a fixture on the power play. Bro had 31 points in his first 55 games as a legit pro hockey player. That's a serious contribution for an 18-year old playing in the AHL. But isn't that what John Klingberg does?
I'd love to hear how they could both fit on the Stars, because frankly, I don't know that they do, and given #1 and #2, I think now is the best time for the Stars to go all Ivan Vishnevski with Honka in search of a more tangible asset.
Robert: Thank you for that opinion, Wes. I will now proceed with shaming you greatly for it.
First even if I were to agree with every part of your objections to Honka's potential fit with Dallas, I don't think a lot of the league is quite as on board with the [skating+smarts>size] equation we've already discussed. So trading Honka now limits your suitors to teams who are willing to pin some of their hopes on a five-foot-something blueliner. There are a limited number of those teams, and that means you probably don't get quite as high a ransom for him as you otherwise would. Selling now would also suggest that the Stars think they whiffed on Honka, and that is going to make other clubs suspicious.
As far as where Honka fits, I would like to direct your attention to Jason "pending UFA" Demers. Yes, Demers has 2 inches on Honka (6'1" to 5'11", if listed heights are consistent), but here's a scenario for you: Stephen Johns plays second-pairing minutes next year on RD (maybe next to Oduya?) in the D-zone more often than not, and Julius Honka begins the year playing on the more sheltered third pair, perhaps with a fairly sizable player like Jokipakka or Lindell (Fin Twins!). Yes, a couple of things have to break right for that to work out, but I just don't see how you don't at least give Honka a shot to work his magic at the NHL level.
Besides all that, Honka was [one of] the first 1st-round picks Jim Nill made for Dallas; I just don't see Nill pulling the chute on a top pick after one year--especially considering how great Honka's year was.
Wes: No, actually, I don't think you have to give Honka a shot. Unless you think the rest of the prospect group is going to collapse around him and/or Klingberg is going to regress. You certainly can give him a shot, there's nothing wrong with that. My concern is with Honka getting a shot and being Philip Larsen.
Remember that Vishnevskiy guy I mentioned? The Stars flipped him for Kari Lehtonen. He'd played 5 games in the NHL at that point, he never played another. After 90 or so games, Larsen had degraded to the point where all the Stars could nab was Shawn Horcoff. Objectively, Larsen is a better hockey player than Vishnevskiy, but it's hard to argue Larsen was worth more to the Dallas Stars in the long run.
It comes down to squad makeup. The Stars have depth at defense, or maybe volume is a better word. The pool is shallower elsewhere on the roster. If the team truly believes Honka is special, then keep him, but if there's any doubt, there will never be a better time to flip him for significant assets.
4 - So will the Stars have to let Demers go if they want to play Honka?
Robert: Well, even with the acquisition of Stephen Johns, the Stars still aren't exactly loaded with high-grade right-shot defensemen. Aaron Haydon is fine and Niklas Hansson could well surprise us in a couple years, but neither of them will help the Stars on the level of Johns or Honka right now. So if the Stars do let Demers walk after this year, they have exactly three right-shot defensemen for the immediate future, and all of them will be under 25. That's nice in one way, but it's also a bit risky.
My guess is that the Stars will try to extend Demers and let the older Goligoski go unless he wants to stay on an affordable Oduya-like deal just because he's nice like that. It would be nice to have some insurance for Johns and Honka, and you know exactly what you're getting with Demers. Even a four- or five-year deal still gets you a few prime years from a great player.
Wes: It's going to come down to terms. Goligoski is older, but he's also more settled in the squad and the area. There's a chance he'll require a lesser financial commitment, or more importantly, fewer years. It seems like managing term has been a priority for the Stars more than managing dollars. I think Nill is willing to make a mistake so long as it stays within a 2-3 year timeframe.
The point you made about Demers being a known quantity is also dead on. I think the Stars spend this year keeping their defensive stable under a microscope. Guys like Johns, Jokipakka, Nemeth, Honka, etc are going to have a much greater impact on how the Stars value Goligoski and Demers than either player himself. If they feel like the upside is there elsewhere in the group, I can see them moving on from both. If guys start to plateau early, the Stars might be forced to try and fit in both.