Dallas Stars: Esa Lindell Uses Strong 2018-19 Play To Earn New Contract

The 2018-19 regular season was a big one for many Dallas Stars players. At the center of those players that turned in career-best years was Esa Lindell, who signed an extension on Thursday morning. The new deal shows just how impressive his season was and how important he is to the team’s future.

Let’s step back to Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals series between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues for a moment. And before we dive in, let’s set the stage.

The Stars are in an 0-1 hole in the series and have one more chance to pick up a road win before shifting home. Another loss would put them in a dangerous position. On the other hand, a win would even the series and give them momentum as they traveled back to the American Airlines Center for Games 3 and 4.

And after downing the Nashville Predators – a team that had just won its second consecutive Central division title – in six games in the opening round, the pressure was on to continue meeting expectations.

In that Game 2, the Stars delivered. They combined an explosive start on offense and a strong bounce-back performance from Ben Bishop to post a 4-2 win and knot the series at one game apiece.

And to many viewers and fans, the Dallas Stars skater that everyone remembers from that game is Roope Hintz. There’s a reason for that.

Hintz put together the best performance of his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut against St. Louis in Game 2. He scored the opening goal just 7:11 into the game, tallied a picture-perfect assist on Miro Heiskanen‘s goal less than seven minutes later, and scored the deal-sealing empty net goal from 114 feet away with three seconds left in the game. He finished the game with two goals, three points, a +2 rating, and three shots on goal in 15:01 of ice time. That’s a pretty unreal stat line for a rookie playing in just his eighth NHL postseason contest.

But while Hintz’s performance was impressive, there was another Stars player that put on an impressive show worth applauding. And if you didn’t take a close look at the stat sheet, you might have missed it.

Esa Lindell had his fingerprints all over Game 2 against the Blues. While he didn’t tally a single point in the game, he finished the night with 30:13 in ice time (including an incredible 7:59 while shorthanded), 31 shifts, and six blocked shots. He led all Dallas skaters in each of those categories and skated all but 2:01 of the Stars’ time shorthanded. Mix in three hits and one shot and you’ve got quite a performance from the “Silent Assassin”, as he was dubbed following the game.

And when you see a performance like that from a defenseman, you know there’s something special brewing. That’s what Dallas Stars fans saw from Lindell both in that game and throughout the regular season. The entire league saw it as he took his NHL postseason debut by the horns and became one of the Stars’ most effective all-around players in their 13-game journey.

General manager Jim Nill saw it, too. And on Thursday morning, he capitalized on that special feeling by signing Lindell to a six-year contract extension worth $34.8 million ($5.8 million AAV) that will kick in at the beginning of the 2019-20 season.

Lindell was set to be a pending restricted free agent in the 2019 offseason as his two-year, $4.4 million contract approached expiration. But now, he’s locked in with the Dallas Stars until the end of the 2024-25 season.

It’s an important move for a number of different reasons and just goes to show how valuable Lindell is to this Dallas team and its future.

For one, he’s worth every penny of the deal. As the offseason approached, most analysts assumed that Lindell would land an AAV somewhere between $5 million and $6 million. So, the deal makes sense. With the NHL salary cap rising another few million dollars this summer, the space is there for Dallas to go a little higher in negotiations. Nill is usually good about getting his in-house players locked down on long-term and feasible deals, and this one is no different.

That’s because Lindell has proven his worth.

When the defenseman first entered the NHL as a rookie in 2016-17, he was kind of thrown into the fire. The 2012 third-round pick was forced to play a big role as injuries piled up on a failing team that was falling well short of the lofty expectations set for it in the preseason. As a result, he endured some growing pains but bounded through them relatively quickly.

By the end of the season, he was playing first pairing minutes alongside John Klingberg and the Stars seemed to have a potential top pair for the future.

That belief increased in 2017-18 as Lindell took another encouraging step forward in his development. He finished the season with seven goals and 27 points along with a +19 rating in 80 games. That included an average time on ice of 22:05 as well as 123 blocked shots and 92 hits. He became a regular fixture on the power play and penalty kill and was turning into one of the team’s most reliable defenders.

“I think it feels better when I play more and the shifts are more consistent and you’re in the game more,” said Lindell back in Jan. 2018. “That helps a lot. You can feel it when there’s a little break and you’re not on. It helps to play as much as you can and it grows your confidence and then you can see it in your game.”

And in a contract year in 2018-19, Lindell left no doubt about his legitimacy as a budding NHL superstar. In a full 82-game slate, Lindell posted 11 goals (career-high and second-most among Stars defenders), 32 points (career-high and third among Stars d-men), and a +14 rating (third on team). Included in that were four power play goals, seven power play points, and a team-high two shorthanded goals and four shorthanded points. Mix in 143 hits and a team-high 161 blocked shots (10th in NHL) and you’ve got the makings of a talented 25-year-old defenseman.

“Well, if you asked that before the first NHL season, I would highly doubt that. But after a while in the first season, I got really comfortable with [John Klingberg] and it’s easy to play with him. That makes it fun, too and it helps out in close games.” –Lindell on whether he expected to be a top pairing defender this early in his career, Oct. 2018

But, as it always seems to be with Lindell, those numbers were just the tip of the iceberg. A deeper dive (as well as just watching him on the ice) is required in order to assess his overall impact.

Lindell shattered his career-high in average time on ice this year by skating 24:20 per game. That was the 14th-highest mark of any NHL skater this year. He also spent an average of 3:14 on the ice while shorthanded each game, which was the fifth-highest total of any player in the league.

And in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut, he found a way to hike things up another notch. While he finished the postseason run with one goal and four points in 13 games played, the scoresheet was not where his influence took control. Instead, it was his average time on ice of 26:58 that led all Stars skaters and was fourth among all NHL skaters in the postseason. It was also the average of 4:30 that he spent shorthanded on the ice which pinned him fifth among all playoff skaters. And let’s not forget the 34 blocked shots that also led the team.

In summary, Lindell does all of the “little things” the right way. At 6-3, 215 lb., he can get physical when he needs to in the defensive zone with the back check. He can clear out the front of the net, gain control of the puck, and make quick outlet passes to kickstart a rush. He boasts a strong two-way presence and can provide help and energy in all three zones. He’s a penalty kill aficionado and can even add an extra depth element to the power play. Simply put: he can do a little bit of everything.

For a 25-year-old, that’s special. And when a young player knows how to do that and can put it all together on a nightly basis, it would seem foolish for any hockey team to not re-sign them.

And so, the Stars have Lindell locked down long-term. He will now be the highest-paid defender on the Dallas blue line (at least until they start negotiations with Miro Heiskanen next summer or John Klingberg in 2021) and should be a Star until the 2025 offseason.

“Just his confidence about playing every day here. I know he was good before coming into the league, but when you step into the best league in the world and obviously he had a shaky start. But now you can see his confidence is there and he’s playing good out there and is doing a lot of good reads and playing good defensive minutes. I’m happy to play with him.” –Klingberg on Lindell’s growth, Jan. 2018

It just goes to show where effort, determination, and an ability to do all of the “little things” right can get you. Sure, he may not be a flashy goal scorer or a big, bruising defenseman; but when he’s on the ice (which is pretty often in every game), the Dallas Stars have a serious, multidimensional weapon at their fingertips. And in a defense-first system, there’s only room for him to continue growing and thriving.

And if you were to offer any NHL team six years of that at a reasonable price, they’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.