Training Camp Battles: Esa Lindell has big skates to fill for Dallas' blueline, but how ready is he?
Esa Lindell is the defensemen AHL scouts are warning non Dallas teams about. Can he fill the hole left from Alex Goligoski and Jason Demer's departures?
The Stars don't have the reputation of a team with a strong blueline. Walk into any fantasy trade forum or thread, be it on reddit, or the hfboards, and everyone can't wait to offer you a bunch of third pairing defensemen they think Dallas needs for Valeri Nichushkin. But that's because Dallas has a strong pipeline of quality prospects. It'd be darn near impossible to have every blueline prospect bust. The boom is here. It's just distributed unevenly.
And none have garnered more hype and acclaim than Dallas' 2012 3rd round pick, Esa Lindell.
Part of what makes Lindell a shoe-in for Dallas' blueline is pedigree. He hasn't been the proverbial big fish in the small pond. In his draft year, he was a point per game defensemen for Jokerit U20 in SM Liiga's junior league. In the playoffs, he remained productive. That year for Finland's U18 team, he was productive. And so on...
When he finally made his way into the Finnish Elite League, he stopped being productive for a bit, only to once again find himself the blueline goal scoring rock Assat needed for the 2014-2015 season (while also being their 3rd best scoring skater overall). When he came to Texas as a rookie, he was kind enough to bring his magnetic grin, and goal scoring prowess to Dallas' AHL affiliate too. Lindell ended the 2015-2016 season for the Texas Stars with 42 points: good for 16th in overall rookie scoring (only San Diego's Brandon Montour, and Syracuse's Anthony DeAngelo had more as rookie blueliners), and 9th in defensemen scoring.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Lindell doesn't play a very complicated game. When he has possession of the puck, and he's at the point, he likes to shoot. Here he is "missing" from the left point:
Even with a forward in front of him forcing him to retreat, he gets the shot right on Anton Khudobin's pads, allowing Stars forward Remi Elie to grab the rebound. And here he is not missing:
This is Lindell's strength. With or without space, he threads the needle like a smocking guild savant. This is something that Dallas has, frankly, missed in recent years. Dallas has had puck movers in recent years but that didn't make them skilled shooters: guys like Alex Goligoski, and Trevor Daley could help transition the play but they were awful at getting the puck on net.
He also has no problem activating on the Power Play, where sometimes he'd rather just shoot from the goalie's doorstep:
Lindell probably has the best shot of any blueliner in Dallas' organization. Yes, that includes John Klingberg, but only in terms of pure mechanics: release, velocity, and accuracy are second nature to Lindell. Obviously, Klingberg is better at using his feet to get open, so both use different methods to get the puck on net, but it's effective. And it's effective thanks to Lindell's aggressive philosophy.
Depth chart victim or depth chart valedictorian?
I'm gonna delve into criticisms of Lindell's game, so let me clarify. My issues relate to Lindell, the player. Not Lindell, the prospect. That's an important distinction because as a prospect, Lindell is doing what is asked of him. He's playing progressively tougher competition, logging minutes, improving his game, and producing. For a 22 year old defensemen, that is all you can ask of him.
However, the devil is always in the details. So for those bullish on the prospect of him just taking over the blueline this season, let's slow it down. Let's slow it waaaay down.
For one, Dallas needs defensive IQ on the blueline, and no scouting report has ever defined Lindell by his defensive prowess. Mike Farkas of Hockey's Future has always harped on Lindell's transitional game:
There are some rough edges to Lindell's game - the angles he takes defensively and his transition skating being principal among them...
The second gif will be a perfect example of what Farkas is talking about but for now, let's look at a scene that looks eerily familiar to Dallas Stars fans:
These are the things that Goose, Daley, and others were guilty of; aggressive pinching leading to odd man rushes or breakaways. It's just one play, so there's no need to define him by it, but it highlights his trademark aggression, which isn't always an asset. Now here's where Farkas' specific criticism comes from (and it's a flaw that is more prevalent):
Lindell is neither fast, nor agile so his first instinct is to poke check and use his reach. Except because he doesn't have good lateral mobility, the Rampage player easily avoids him by angling for position. The play itself isn't a disaster. His defensive partner, Julius Honka (seen saving Lindell's bacon in the last gif as well), has the man that slides past him. But Lindell's transitions remain problematic because he has to turn his whole body (contrast this play with Mattias Backman's reaction I highlighted Tuesday). When he turns his back to the play he can't see what's unfolding behind him. Not only that, but San Antonio clearly has possession and numbers by the time they're transitioning. This is when the defender must respond to the play. Not the puck. And he still needs work in that area; especially if he expects to be prepared against the NHL's speed.
Lindell has traditionally been the Robin to his partner's Batman. When Lindell looks good, it's because he has a good partner. He thrived when paired with Stephen Johns, Julius Honka, and in international play when he's had players like Rasmus Ristolainen and Ville Pokka. These were players who either had stout defensive games like Johns and Ristolainen, or who could do the leg work of moving the puck out of the zone like Honka and Pokka.
If he makes the cut in Dallas, who he's partnered with will probably be the difference. Playing third pair minutes with a rotating cast of Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth, and Jamie Oleksiak won't give his game room to breathe. Being reunited with Johns, or getting a nice try out with the Kling might yield better results. But he can't simply be handed over top four minutes either.
Lindell is an interesting figure because while I personally take issue with the way he's been advertised ("big two way defensemen!"), this doesn't make me any less enthusiastic. Yes, his game is still raw in certain areas, but 22 year old defensemen usually look that way. Difference being that 22 year old defensemen typically haven't scored 40+ points in their AHL debuts.