Dallas Stars' Young Defensemen Holding Steady On The Third Pair Early In The Season

Initially seen as a potential weak spot for the team, the Stars' bright-eyed defenders are answering the call

It's was no secret heading into the 2014-2015 season that out of all the areas of the team, the Dallas Stars' defense was the one with the most cause for concern.

All things considered, on paper the group didn't necessarily look bad, but there were undoubtedly some question marks. The top pairing of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley looked fantastic together down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, but both players are below average in terms of size and haven't spent a ton of time as a duo yet. The second pairing of Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn had shown promise last year, but was significantly lacking in combined NHL experience as far as second pairings go.

Things only got more interesting with the third pair. With Sergei Gonchar suffering a serious ankle injury in the preseason and Aaron Rome cast away, drifting around in minor league hockey purgatory somewhere between Utica and Zagreb, the door was flung wide open for the organization's deep pool of young defenders: Kevin Connauton, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Jyrki Jokipakka, John Klingberg and Cameron Gaunce.

With less than 100 combined NHL games between those six names, would some members of that group find their feet at hockey's highest level?

The answer so far, impressively, is yes.

Despite some shuffling due to injuries, the three players that have rotated in and out so far - Connauton, Nemeth and Oleksiak - have all played well, and the revolving combinations have consistently managed to do exactly what is expected out of a third pairing: defend your end and help the play transition back up the ice.

Connauton, a player that was somewhat forgotten in the hype surrounding others like Klingberg and Jokipakka during training camp, has been by far the best of the three. Connauton was underwhelming in 36 regular season appearances last year, prompting me to write this article about him this summer, but he's showing notable improvement so far. He only has one assist in five games, but according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com he's currently posting the best Corsi For Percentage out of all Dallas defensemen at 53.8%, which is also good enough for second overall on the team.

Nemeth had also been playing well, showcasing that same responsibly physical (key word there being responsibly...are you listening, Mark Fistric?) defensive style of hockey that endeared him to Stars fans last March and April. Unfortunately, as has been reported recently, Nemeth suffered a severe arm laceration on Saturday against Philadelphia and is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season.

Filling in that physical gap now, however, is Oleksiak. Criticized in his first two seasons for not using his 6'7" frame as effectively as he should have been, "Big Rig" has been using his size advantage more noticeably in his two games so far this season. He won't often crush people out in open ice, but Oleksiak was flat-out bulldozing Vancouver Canucks players along the boards on Tuesday night, and he was also active with his stick. He still has work to do when it comes to choices with the puck and defensive zone awareness, but there have been signs of improvement, which is reassuring.

The wildcard right now, though, has to be Jokipakka. Out of all the young defensemen, Jokipakka was definitely the most impressive during Dallas' training camp and preseason. An excellent combination of size, mobility and composure, Jokipakka plays a very efficient, responsible style of hockey. He's currently penciled into the lineup as the 7th blueliner, but he'll surely be making his NHL debut sooner rather than later.

Now, the performance of these players so far must be kept in the proper context. As good as they've looked, they've still been given favorable zone starts and have faced much easier competition than the top two pairs have. If Connauton and Oleksiak would have had to defend against players like Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux then, well, the results most likely would have been very ugly.

That being said, like I mentioned earlier in this article, they're doing exactly what is expected out of a third pairing. And when you again consider that each player is still young and growing, that's a very encouraging sign for the Dallas Stars going forward.