Jamie Oleksiak is back in Big D. That comes with a need for adjustment from the Dallas Stars defense. So, what does their blue line look like with Oleksiak now in the mix and what could the future hold?
The Dallas Stars aren’t holding back from being active in the trade market this season. And yes, that’s a good thing.
After staying silent at the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline and ultimately losing their spot in the postseason because of it, the Stars find themselves in a similar spot in the 2018-19 campaign. They are a potential playoff team stuck in a clustered race with a handful of other Western Conference clubs.
So, how does that messy race get sorted out? That’s where the deadline comes into play. “Brink playoff teams” that are determined to take the next step typically make a push at the deadline, picking up one or two players to get them over the hump. Meanwhile, the ones that sit back and stick to their lineup typically don’t fare well down the homestretch.
It’s simple: a team that is willing to get aggressive at the deadline and add better talent is set up for a more promising run than a team that is content with sticking to the same old script of mediocrity that has them clutching to their playoff lives in the first place.
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And so, GM Jim Nill is trying to not make the same mistake for the second year in a row. He’s doing so by maximizing his trade activity ahead of the deadline.
On Jan. 14, Nill made his first move by sending Devin Shore to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Andrew Cogliano. Two weeks later, he reacquired Jamie Oleksiak from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a 2019 fourth-round pick just 405 days after making the exact same transaction.
It goes to show that Nill is open to all sorts of possibilities and moves and will do anything to keep his team from missing the postseason for the third year in a row. He’s already deep in the trade game and might only be scratching the surface. We’ll find out more over the next 27 days.
But with trades comes a need for internal shifting. And while the Cogliano move didn’t require any movement because it was a player-for-player deal, the acquisition of Oleksiak will require some decision-making in order for things to work. So, where does no. 2 fit?
First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Dallas Stars traded for Oleksiak because they needed to fill a void. That void came about due to a lack of physicality on the blue line. With heavy-hitting players like Marc Methot and Stephen Johns being stuck on injured reserve for most of the year, the Stars have desperately needed big bodies on the blue line to play an enforcing role in the neutral and defensive zone.
Bringing Oleksiak back fills that void. He averages over two hits and one block per game in his NHL career and never truly lost a fight in his time with the Stars. Remember that bout with Nicolas Deslauriers back in 2015?
So, Oleksiak is bringing a much-needed physical element to the Dallas blue line. He’s not going to be playing first pairing minutes and might not even be a regular on the second pairing, but he’s a defender that can play 15 minutes a game and do his job.
As a result, the Dallas Stars traded for him to be a starter. Nill didn’t acquire him to add another player to the healthy scratch list on defense. He sees and expects Oleksiak to be an impact defender down the stretch because of his skills and traits. And with Oleksiak’s presence, the Stars should get a boost in terms of physicality and enforcement.
Where does that leave the rest of the Stars’ defensive group? Well, that’s a question that can be unpacked a few different ways.
As of right now, Dallas has eight defenders on their NHL roster. John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and Roman Polak look like staples in the lineup. Meanwhile, Oleksiak, Taylor Fedun, Julius Honka, and Connor Carrick are left to scrap for the final two positions. If Oleksiak turns into a consistent starter, that’s one spot for three players.
The Stars learned during the 2017-18 season that carrying and cycling through eight defenders can be a tall task at times. As a result, the thought of them carrying eight during the most important stretch of the season seems a bit ludicrous.
Here’s a look at how the Dallas Stars are lining up on the blue line on Wednesday night against Buffalo:
Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen – Roman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak – Taylor Fedun
Scratches: Connor Carrick, Julius Honka
The Stars are entering a critical stretch of their season over the next few weeks. If this is the lineup that they believe will help them win, where does that leave their scratch list?
Carrick had a solid start to the 2018-19 season for Dallas, starting in nine games and tallying a goal and four points. But, after missing two months with an ankle injury, he’s struggled to get back to game speed since the start of the new year.
He’s only played in three games in the month of January, skating an average of 7:58 and racking up nine penalty minutes. It still looks as though he’s working his way back to game speed and being a consistent contributor in the lineup.
Honka, on the other hand, has been in Dallas for two seasons but has yet to cement his starting spot. The 2014 first-round pick was once viewed as a top prospect for the Stars, but has since found himself fighting to stay in the starting lineup.
“We want to see him play with more pace and take away time and space better,” said head coach Jim Montgomery prior to Honka’s scratching on opening night.
“I don’t think he’s tentative,” the head coach added about the young defender midway through the year. “He’s not processing the way we want to play quick enough and that’s why he looks tentative but he’s not. He’s a very aggressive kid.”
At 23 years old, Honka has only played in 29 of the Stars’ 49 games this year. He’s tallied no goals, four assists, and a -2 rating in an average of 13:43 on the ice. And while he’s not in a position to be sent back down to the AHL, his presence in the NHL has become inconsistent and lacking in overall usage.
So, where does that leave the Dallas Stars defense down the stretch? Do they eventually send Fedun back down to the AHL? Maybe, but he’s played 26 games since being called up in November and has certainly earned his time in the lineup. Does Carrick speed back up and find a spot back in the lineup? Does Oleksiak’s return come with a certain level of inconsistency as he tries to adapt? And where does Honka spend the majority of his time over the next few weeks?
There’s any number of ways that this can turn out for the Stars. But with 33 games to go in the regular season, eight defensemen on the NHL roster toes the line of overstocking. Does that call for Nill to pull the trigger yet again and make a trade to relieve the stock on the blue line? Maybe.
The next 27 days will be an intriguing period for Dallas and it will be interesting to watch it all unfold.