For most of the past decade, defense has been a point of vulnerability for the Dallas Stars. Over the past two seasons, however, defensive play has been the team’s biggest asset. That’s due to three names in particular that have now turned themselves into franchise cornerstones.
When the Stars traded for defenseman Alex Goligoski in Feb. 2011, they were looking both for stability and reliability. A playoff drought that would eventually run for five seasons was in its prime and there was a carousel of defenders being changed out with each passing season.
Names like Nicklas Grossmann, Philip Larsen, Sheldon Souray, Mark Fistric, and Aaron Rome made their way in and out of the lineup and organization as a whole, with no stint lasting longer than a handful of years.
Simply put: there was no consistency in the Stars’ defensive lineup or execution.
Bringing in Goligoski was an attempt to fix that problem. In some ways, it worked; but in other ways, it didn’t.
On the bright side, Goligoski was a Star for over five seasons and played top-pairing minutes. He was a good two-way option, posted strong possession numbers, and could skate for 23+ minutes per game while contributing 35+ points a season. If the Stars needed a confident veteran defender, they got one in Goligoski.
But he didn’t solve all of the blue line’s issues. The Dallas defense continued struggling with keeping the team in games, finishing 13th, 23rd, 16th, 26th, and 19th in goals against during Goligoski’s tenure.
So, while a veteran Goligoski provided the Dallas Stars with different positive attributes, he wasn’t enough to fill the void. As a result, the Stars traded the pending UFA to the Arizona Coyotes in 2016 and the carousel took another spin.
There was a lesson to learn in all of that. For one, defensive success is a necessity in today’s NHL. If a team wants to boast consistent success and compete for the Stanley Cup, its defensive game must be both established and skilled.
And for most of the past decade, the Stars haven’t had that. The blue line has been a constant “trial and error” ground, with defenders arriving and leaving on a season-by-season basis. To put this into perspective, let’s take a look at the defensive group that Dallas ended the season with:
Out of that group, Klingberg is the longest-tenured Dallas Stars player. He made his NHL debut with the Stars in Nov. 2014, meaning he’s played a little less than five full seasons with the club. Esa Lindell just wrapped up his third full year in the league. Heiskanen was a rookie (and a dang good one at that) this year. Polak signed with the team via free agency last summer, as did Hanley. Fedun was traded to Dallas in November. Lovejoy arrived near the Trade Deadline from New Jersey. Oleksiak was sent back to Dallas by Pittsburgh for his second stint with the club.
The longer you look, the more revealing it is. And what about the injured players? Marc Methot arrived via trade in the summer of 2017 and there’s a good chance he won’t be back next season. And while Stephen Johns was dealt to Dallas by the Chicago Blackhawks in July 2015, he didn’t make his NHL debut until the tail end of the 2015-16 season.
To make the picture a little more clear, let’s look at the Stars’ defensive group from the 2015-16 season when they won the Central division and advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Alex Goligoski – John Klingberg
Kris Russell – Stephen Johns
Looks just a little different, right?
The consistency of change has been due to a handful of different obstacles and struggles. For one, some Dallas defensive prospects have struggled to pan out over the years. There’s also been an issue with players getting injured and voids being created that need a quick filling. And finally, the production just hasn’t been there for much of the past decade.
That was until the 2017-18 season. With Ken Hitchcock back in the fold as head coach, the Dallas Stars pulled a complete turnaround regarding their defensive woes. After finishing 29th in the league in goals against per game in 2016-17, the Stars struck a new chord in the defensive zone. They played with structure, precision, and a frustratingly effective mindset.
When combining all of that together, the Stars finished the year with the seventh-lowest goals against average in the league. And while they didn’t make the playoffs and Hitchcock slipped back into retirement, the foundation was set for a new era of defense in Dallas.
And in 2018-19, rookie head coach Jim Montgomery took it a step further. With a new and constantly-changing Dallas defensive group that had to adapt to various injuries, Montgomery turned the Stars’ blue line into a dominant force. They finished the season with only 202 goals against (2.46 per game), good enough for second in the NHL. That defensive success also carried into the postseason as they downed the Nashville Predators (a team with arguably the best defensive setup in the league) in six games in the first round and fell one goal short of a trip to the Western Conference Final.
So, what happened? Good coaching happened. Jim Montgomery and assistant coach Rick Bowness adapted well to each of the obstacles they faced during the regular season and continued to build an effective brand and style that the blue line could buy into.
On top of that, it seems as though the Dallas Stars have finally found an effective trio of defensemen to use as their cornerstones for the future. Those defenders are John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, and Miro Heiskanen.
And this is where the Stars’ defensive promise lies.
Ever since his rookie debut in 2014, John Klingberg has been turning heads across the NHL with a balanced mixture of offensive prowess and defensive skill. He can quarterback a power play, skate upwards of 24 minutes a game, use his speed and puck handling skills in all three zones, post at least 45 points a season, and has yet to post a negative plus-minus rating in a given NHL season. He’s finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting in two of the past four years and is a prime asset for the Dallas blue line. The best part? He’s under contract for the next three seasons at a bargain cap hit of $4.25 million.
Esa Lindell has followed a similar but more condensed path. He began his rookie season in 2016-17 and played a pivotal role on a struggling Dallas blue line while also trying to establish himself as an NHL defender. But after improving drastically in each season since and being near the top of the NHL leaderboards in a handful of different metrics among defensemen, Lindell was inked to a six-year extension by the Stars this past Thursday. He’s a first-pairing player that can eat up a ton of minutes, serve on the power play and penalty kill, and do the little things to help Dallas win.
And then there’s Miro Heiskanen. When the Dallas Stars drafted Heiskanen third overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, it was clear that they were getting a special player. After all, a team would have to try really hard to not pick a highly-talented prospect at no. 3 overall. But did anyone think that Heiskanen would be this good at the age of 19? That’s a different story.
Heiskanen made his NHL debut on Opening Night this past season and wasted no time in making a name for himself. By the time it was all said and done, the rookie had skated in all 82 games during the regular season, tallying 12 goals and 33 points in an average of 23:07 of ice time per game. His possession skills were incredible, as was his blazing speed and ability to quickly act and react in all three zones. He was a staple on the power play and could play anywhere in the lineup and in almost any situation.
Heiskanen is still on his rookie deal (with a cap hit of $894,166) that will cover him until the end of the 2020-21 season. And while Dallas won’t be getting him on a bargain deal like they did with Klingberg, the team will do what it has to in order to keep no. 4 locked up long-term. That’s what teams do with franchise defenders, after all.
With Klingberg, Lindell, and Heiskanen all likely in the fold for at least the next 6-8 years, the Dallas Stars have their defensive foundation. These three provide the cornerstones necessary to not only be successful in defensive execution, but also in giving the lineup a strong image for years to come.
The Dallas Stars proved to be a respectable defense-first team during the 2018-19 season, and these three players led the charge. And with that in mind, get ready for the future.