Julius Honka has yet to play a full season at the NHL level with the Dallas Stars, but that doesn’t diminish his incredible potential. He has the opportunity to become the new face of the Dallas franchise.
When the NHL announced the seven players elected to the 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class and defenseman Sergei Zubov’s name was not included, Dallas Stars fans went into an uproar. After all, he’s the best defenseman in franchise history.
But it’s more than just that. Zubov is not only considered one of the best defenders in Stars history, but one of the best defenders in NHL history. And if the sole purpose of an NHL defender was to contribute from an offensive standpoint, he might take the title of GOAT (greatest of all time). That’s how much influence his play had on the league.
The Dallas Stars were simply lucky to have him for 12 of the 16 years of his career. From 1996-2009, he led the Dallas blue line in terms of leadership, poise, and skill. He was an offensive mastermind and a possession monster that helped lead both the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars to Stanley Cup titles. It’s hard to believe that he’s not in the Hall with the amazing career that is trailing him.
While Stars fans wait for Sergei Zubov to be inducted into the Hall AND have his no. 56 immortalized in the rafters of the AAC, they are also waiting for another Zubov to come around to help their ailing defense.
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Since Jim Nill took over as general manager and began a new era in Dallas Stars timeline, one of the consistent weak points within the franchise has been on the blue line. The Dallas defense has been horrible at times and good at others, but has never been great. That’s partially because of the scheme, but also because of a lack of balanced talent.
For much too long, the Stars have tried putting together an effective defensive group, but never quite hit the right spot. Their closest attempt at a dominant blue line in the Nill era came during the 2015-16 season with players like Alex Goligoski, Johnny Oduya, and Jason Demers.
And then there was that other defenseman. I’m talking about John Klingberg, of course. After a stellar rookie season in 2014-15 that saw Klingberg explode out of the gate after being called up mid-season and quickly earn himself a full-time roster spot, he was poised to be the next “big thing” in Dallas and, dare we say, the next “franchise defenseman.”
He closed out his 65-game rookie season with a fifth place finish in the Calder Trophy race, which is awarded to the NHL’s top rookie. In 2015-16, he capitalized on his strong rookie campaign, putting up 10 goals and 58 points along with an impressive +22 rating in 76 games. As a result of his offensive firepower, he finished sixth in the Norris Trophy race for league’s best defenseman.
Then the 2016-17 season rolled around, and the John Klingberg that Dallas Stars fans had come to know and love disappeared. Some say it was because he lost his partner and “safety net” in Alex Goligoski, while others think the pressure finally got to him.
While it wasn’t the best idea to give Lindy Ruff (an offense-heavy coach) a bunch of offensive defensemen to work with, Klingberg didn’t answer the bell for a lot of the season. He was the healthy scratch on two separate occasions (which was unheard of), put up 49 points, and barely got into positive territory with a +2 rating. It was just an odd and confusing season for the young Swede.
Stars fans were quick to become frustrated with him, expecting near perfection as he had shown in his first two seasons with the club. In the season ahead, Klingberg is expected to rebound in a big way, especially considering he will likely have a defensive defenseman in Marc Methot next to him. That should give Klingberg the opportunity to play further into the offensive zone and get more involved in the offensive attack without having to keep a foot in the neutral zone “just in case.”
But will he be able to beat his exceptional rookie and sophomore seasons? Hard to say, but it will probably be harder than it looks. Klingberg is a bright piece of the Dallas Stars future, but might not be the next Erik Karlsson as everyone expected him to be. That still remains to be seen, though.
So until we know more about where Klingberg will turn up, are there any other Stars defenders that could become a face of the franchise?
Sirens should be going off in your head saying, “MIRO HEISKANEN, MIRO HEISKANEN.” And yes, that is a very strong possibility. But I’m talking about in the here and now. Heiskanen is still likely at least a year, maybe two away from NHL play.
The player I’m talking about is young Julius Honka. The 2014 first-round draft pick is expected to become a full-time NHL starter this season, and with his talents, he might just take the league by storm.
He’s very similar to John Klingberg in the fact that he is an offensive defenseman. Honka can move the puck extremely well, create scoring chances from the blue line, set up his teammates for the score, or snipe home an accurate shot. He’s got speed and excellent skating ability as well. One of his biggest strengths, however, is his ability to quarterback a power play from the blue line.
Considering all of that, he’s actually a lot like John Klingberg. One of the main differences between the two is size. While Klingberg stands at 6-2, 180 lb., Honka outweighs him at 195 lb. but only hits the 5-11 mark.
Honka made his NHL debut last season and impressed many in a season overshadowed by doubt and disgrace. He only played in 16 games, tallying one goal (an overtime winner against Arizona) and four assists for five points. This was done in just 16:52 average ice time, which is typical third-pairing minutes.
It’s time to break Julius Honka out of his shell. In GM Jim Nill’s words, he’s become “overripened” with the Texas Stars in the AHL. It’s time to give him a full-time job in Big D. His skills are finely tuned, his poise and focus are at a professional level, and he’s on the brink of doing great things for a 21-year-old righty.
These next few years will be huge for Honka. He still has a good amount to prove to Dallas (especially with all of the defensemen waiting for their shot in the Dallas system), but he’s already shown his extreme value in the AHL for 2-3 seasons now. He’s got the tools to be an elite NHL defender, but has to use them in the right way.
He has time to prove himself, and if he can take these next two or three seasons by the reins under the coaching of Ken Hitchcock, the offensive defenseman could be the Dallas Stars’ freshest shot at a franchise face on the blue line.