Training Camp Battles: Julius Honka will be the lone star in Texas, but how long must Dallas wait?
Julius Honka is playing the role of 1st round pick in Texas in a number one role this season. How long until he plays up to his first round status in Dallas?
Author's note: consider this part two of my Honka profile from May. This will be the last of my training camp battle profiles. Click the link if you missed things you think you should know about Stransky, Backman, Dickinson, Shore, or Lindell.
Julius Honka, also spelled and pronounced 'Hongalla', began his career in the Suomen mestaruussarja, which translates as the 'Finnish Championship Series': or at least that's what it used to be called before a series of overly complicated events changed the naming conventions of Finnish hockey leagues.
Playing for JYP's U16 team in Jyväskylä, Honka developed his reputation as an offensive defensemen. He didn't stay home too long. Either because the piparkakku wasn't cutting it in Finland, or because scouts were begging him to come over, Honka quickly transitioned to North American hockey for the Swift Current Broncos. There he amassed 56 points in 62 games for the 2014 draft year, becoming one of the WHL's top rookies. And he did it with a team completely devoid of offensive talent.
As is habit for Honka, he moved fast. After getting drafted, Honka went to the AHL thanks to some more overly complicated events: he played for Swift Current, but was on loan under IIHF rules by JYP, and therefore wasn't violating the CHL-NHL transfer agreement. Once he got to Texas, he traded in the nakkikastike for the Arlington boomstick. He's been feeling the boom ever since, ending his rookie AHL season 5th all time in defensemen scoring for a player his age, and hasn't looked back.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Our 19th century British naturalists were the first to predict it: sports, like organisms, change over time. Mixed martial arts is a good example. Royce Gracie introduced the world to Brazilian jiu jitsu. Suddenly we learned that fighting off your back could actually be practical, if not advantageous in certain situations. And so the sport of mixed martial arts transitioned from parking lot strip club brawling with middle aged outlet mall dojo masters to actual prizefighting technicians. In recent years, jiu jitsu is now a premium in a dramatically different way. The focus is no longer on static ground combat. Now the premium is placed on transitions, sweeps to get back to the feet or in top position: grappling designed for dynamic transitioning rather than static setups.
How else to explain why some guys can get away with flying switch kick knockouts now?
The reason for this long winded MMA lesson is that hockey has undergone the same exact evolution: rules and regulations, players who profile differently, have given way to a game more dynamic than it used to be. And the change can be seen in some obvious ways: the extinction of the hockey goon for one. And other more subtle yet profound ways: like how rigid adherence to systems can actually negatively affect a play.
Which brings us to defense in hockey. Today's defense is more concerned with transitional play than it is static in-zone situations. I'll never forget the 2015-2016 preseason game between Dallas and Tampa Bay. When the same two teams met in the regular season, Jyrki Jokipakka was caught in no man's land near the left circle against Steven Stamkos. Stamkos deked Jokipakka out of his skates, and scored. During the preseason, when Julius Honka was caught in no man's land near the left circle against Steven Stamkos in an eerily similar situation, he kept his feet moving, and stood Stamkos up to prevent the scoring chance.
Honka, despite his reputation, prides himself on playing the man. Here he is in the middle of a Texas line change trying to Rumble in the Bronx in his own zone:
Physicality plays a central role in Honka's game despite his stature. It's not an overt physicality, but it's the kind of physicality that typically earns defensemen "stay at home" honors.
The gif below reinforces how critical speed is even when you're in your own zone. Andrew Berkshire noted on Dimitri Filipovic's podcast how zone entry video and data revealed that the Montreal defensive pair of Andrei Markov and PK Subban worked in a rather counterintuitive way: it was Markov, despite his lack of footspeed, who would play aggressively against rush entries so that when opponents dumped the puck in, it was Subban who used his quick stride to retrieve it.
In my May post, I emphasized Honka's brilliance using legwork to get out of the zone and the distinction between rushing the puck instead of moving it out at the top of the circles (so called 'puck movers'). This doesn't mean Honka can't pass: I would argue he's the best passer Texas has, and it's not even close. Here he is making the most of the space he creates for himself, using his forwards to transition:
Again, speed in the defensive zone plays a role: Honka easily evades the forechecker. But that's just step one. A lot of defensemen would just chip it along the boards (what our third pairing defensemen do), or defer back to their partners (Oduya loves this). The problem with these choices is that they present two scenarios for the opposing team: the best case, where opponents reset and have a clearer image of what to expect, and worst cast, where opponents just plain disrupt it and/or force a turnover.
Cory Sznajder and the good guys over at The Energy Line tracked all zone entries in the Minnesota/Dallas series, observing that Dallas didn't actually generate many shots off their carry ins despite their reputation as a 'great transition team'. I maintain this is because Dallas doesn't have many defensemen that can do what Honka does above. What Honka is doing is creating space instead of taking it away from forwards limited to accepting a clunky board rim, or stretch pass. Forwards love the middle of the ice. When defensemen can give them the middle, even better.
All this this talk about defense and in-zone play is great, but it's like going over the deep reflections on social themes in a Donnie Yen movie. Honka's an action hero, and nowhere is this more apparent than observing the puck wushu he can perform in the opponent's zone:
One of the reasons Honka is so effective at the point is because he's basically impossible to contain. Honka's a good shooter, but he's more about offensive dimensionality: he has a solid wrist shot, but like Ip Man he's more than comfortable just using his legs too:
Having this kind of blade fu allows him to be as adept in open space as he is in tight spaces.
Depth chart victim or depth chart valedictorian?
Because Honka is relatively small, and puts up points, the natural stigma associated with him is that he's not as good in the defensive zone. Thankfully he's not the stereotype you've been warned about. If there's an issue with Honka, it's when he has the puck. Like many puck possession hounds, Honka can hold it too long. Either he overestimates the space he has, or underestimates the space opponents are about to take away. This usually goes one of two ways: turnover, or play inertia. Those decisions earned him a healthy scratch from Derek Laxdal early in the Texas Stars season.
It seemed to do him so good. After the scratch, Honka (who wasn't producing early in the year) flipped the switch, eventually passing Lindell for the team lead in points by a defensemen. Both seemed to benefit from their friendly Finnish competition. It feels like Honka has been playing in the AHL forever, and yet he's still just 20 years old.
Initially I didn't want to write this because I feel like Nill and Co. want him in Texas on #1 duty. Dallas has a ton of defensemen who have had more nacho plates than shifts. It would be odd for Honka to just bypass them all with no previous experience. However, that's essentially what happened with Stephen Johns (further complicating this perplexing eight defensemen thing). Dallas had three right handed defensemen last season. They're back down to two this year. If one of them goes down to injury, Honka getting a call up isn't out of the question. This is especially relevant if it's Klingberg nursing an injury. After all, if Lindell is still in Texas this season, Hamhuis, Johns, Oduya, Nemeth, Jordie Benn, and Oleksiak will be the ones expected to transition plays up ice. I believe Blade calls this scenario "ice skating uphill".
Honka has 75 points through two seasons in Cedar Park. I don't know that he's ready to contribute at the NHL level right away. But he's closer than some given him credit for; a heck of an achievement at his age. Just hold on, to quote Sam & Dave.