Though they picked up two points, Thursday night’s win came at a cost for the Dallas Stars. With their top defenseman now sidelined for the next three weeks, how will their already banged up defense shape out? And, more importantly, will they be able to rise to the challenge?
The Dallas Stars are well-versed with the mantra that “defense wins championships.” After all, it’s the primary reason in why they have not come close to a Stanley Cup championship in the past decade.
For much of the 2010’s, the Stars have struggled in finding a championship-caliber blue line. And, while they scrambled for answers, teams with already-established and dominant defenses raked it in.
Think about the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins. These three teams have six Stanley Cups between them over the past nine years. A common thread between each of those championship teams happens to be an elite defense. For Chicago, it was Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, and Brent Seabrook. For LA, it was Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, and Alec Martinez. For Pittsburgh, it was Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and Justin Schultz.
While these three teams were off winning championships every other year, the Stars were trying looking for help. By the 2014-15 season (when Dallas finished 26th in the NHL in GA/GP average), it was clear that Dallas needed to give their undivided attention to the blue line.
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They responded by confident drafting, careful call-ups, and focused trading and free agent signings.
And now, three years later, the Dallas Stars arguably own one of the best blue lines in the NHL. In 2017-18, they posted the seventh-best GA/GP in the NHL. Through 16 games this season, they own the eighth-best average.
It’s a blue line filled with youth and balance. They have physical grinders like Marc Methot, Roman Polak, and Stephen Johns. They also have two-way players like Connor Carrick and Esa Lindell. And to top it all off, players like John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, and Julius Honka provide a decisive offensive edge.
Each player provides a critical part to the defense’s execution and helps round out the lineup. But every unit has its most important piece. For the Stars, that piece is John Klingberg.
As a 26-year-old and former fifth-round pick, Klingberg has played an instrumental role on the Dallas blue line since his call-up in 2014 and continues to assume new ones with each passing season. He’s become the leader of the defense on the top pairing, possesses one of the best offensive minds in the game, is a staple on the power play and penalty kill, eats up minutes, and has become one of the most well-rounded defenders in Dallas Stars history. There’s a reason he was a challenger in the Norris Trophy race last year.
This season, Klingberg is already sticking out once again, sitting second on the team in points (5-8-13) and leading the team in average ice time (25:03). He’s been an effective quarterback for the blue line and is doing his part in helping the Dallas defense establish themselves as a consistent and legitimate threat.
But on Thursday, no. 3 was pinned with something that he had yet to run into in his NHL career: a long-term injury.
After taking an Evander Kane shot off of the torso early in the third period, Klingberg left the ice and did not return. In the postgame conference, head coach Jim Montgomery announced that the star defender would be sidelined for at least three weeks. On Friday morning, it was made final as Klingberg was placed on injured reserve and the Stars recalled defenseman Joel Hanley to fill the void.
For all who may not have digested it yet, losing Klingberg could end up being a crushing blow to the 2018-19 Dallas Stars. The next three weeks involve ten games against some of the best opponents across the league, and Dallas will have to do it without their defensive quarterback. He’s that crucial of a piece.
On top of that, he is another casualty in an already-battered Dallas defense missing key pieces such as Johns, Carrick, and Methot (all due to various injuries). As a result, the Dallas Stars are now running with a skeleton crew blue line.
Esa Lindell will likely continue manning the top pairing on the left side on defense; but from there, it’s anyone’s guess.
With AHL-level players like Joel Hanley and Dillon Heatherington now being needed as NHL starters, Montgomery and the Stars will have to work in finding a new lineup combination. They will have to do it rather quickly, considering their next contest is against the Nashville Predators, who currently own the best record in the NHL.
At the moment, Dallas has Lindell, Heiskanen, Polak, Honka, Heatherington, and Hanley to choose from when crafting their defensive lineup. Methot could return within the next game or two, but there’s no guarantee as to when he will be back and what his longevity will be.
Three of those names have less than 25 games of NHL experience. That’s practically unheard of for an NHL defense.
So, how should Montgomery go about solving this puzzle? Well, the same way he always does: with balance and strategy.
Lindell is a reliable two-way player, as can be the 19-year-old Heiskanen. Honka and Hanley are small and fast offensive-minded players. To round it out, Heatherington and Polak are the defensive grinders that bring a much-needed physical element to the lineup.
So, all in all, there is still a certain balance to the Dallas defensive lineup, though the experience is lacking. That’s where the real test comes in.
Practically overnight, this Dallas Stars defense has lost a heavy dose of inexperience. The blue line has not boasted this much youth and lack of regular NHL skaters in a long time. As a result, it will be up to them to follow through and carry the load left by the key members.
The defensive lineup may be severely lacking, but the expectations for the team remain the same. It’s up to the Dallas Stars to persevere and grind through it. They have already been grinding with Johns, Methot, and Carrick out; now, they will have to hit a new level and go even further.
So far this season, the Stars have proven that they can navigate through tough challenges. They bounced back from a rough start on the road, have secured wins even in games where they are outplayed, and have yet to crumble in the face of adversity. This is just a new weight to toss into their pail.
It’s fun to dream about just how good this team can be once they finally get healthy. But the current situation is where teams find out just how strong they are. It’s up to the Stars to keep their momentum rolling, and that all starts with Nashville on Saturday afternoon.
Time to see just how deep this Dallas Stars team can dig.