With the 2018-19 campaign in the past, the next step for the Dallas Stars is making some tough offseason decisions. One of those revolves around former first-round pick Julius Honka. And after another season of minimal usage by the team, the question must be asked: what does the defender’s future look like?
The 2019 offseason will be filled with tough and potentially franchise-altering decisions for the Dallas Stars. But that’s nothing out of the ordinary when examining the franchise’s past.
Last summer, the tough decisions revolved around hiring a brand new coaching staff that would help usher in a new era for the team after recycling veteran coaches in the seasons prior. The majority of the lineup pieces were already in place, but needed a crafty and confident bench boss to aid them in taking the next step.
The 2017 offseason was all about adding top talent and building a new crease that could compete in the playoffs. As a result, the Stars brought in Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Marc Methot, and Martin Hanzal, among others.
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The summer of 2016 left Dallas with a tough decision regarding their defense. After finishing in first place in the Western Conference and falling one win short of the Western Conference Final, the Stars had four starting defenders approaching UFA status. They decided to let three of them walk, including Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, and Kris Russell, while only retaining Jordie Benn and signing Dan Hamhuis in free agency. They ended up paying for it dearly by finishing with the second-highest goals against average in the NHL in the 2016-17 season.
Each offseason comes with its own set of challenges and decisions. Some of them may seem easy, while others come with intriguing debates. And in the summer of 2019, the Dallas Stars will have to wade through many of those debates.
After a year where he exceeded expectations and was a bargain for his one-year deal but still struggled at times, should the Stars re-sign Roman Polak? And although he didn’t live up to his lofty salary in the final two seasons of his contract, would it be smart to try and bring Jason Spezza back on a major pay cut? What about Mats Zuccarello and the negotiations that must happen regarding his contract extension?
There’s a lot that has to be decided and sorted out.
Sitting in the middle of it all is the future of defenseman Julius Honka. And after two years of uncertainty and sinking into a seemingly permanent healthy scratch role, there’s no telling what his next step might be.
The intriguing debate began in the 2017-18 season. With Ken Hitchcock back behind the bench for a second tour of duty with the Dallas Stars, it was clear that a defense that finished 29th in goals against in the 2016-17 season was about to undergo a substantial transformation. After all, defense was what Hitchcock had built his successful coaching career on.
But as the Dallas defense got better and focused more on structure and fluidity, there was one piece missing from the puzzle: Honka.
The former first-round pick had made his NHL debut during the 2016-17 season under Lindy Ruff. And while it was a limited debut (he only played in 16 games), he showed all the flashes of being the next great Dallas defenseman that everyone had envisioned since the franchise drafted him in 2014. He finished the season with one goal and five points, had incredible possession numbers, and average over 16 minutes a game on the ice.
But under Hitchcock’s leadership, Honka’s development came to a halt. As the regular season began, many expected him to be a staple on the blue line and have a major impact on the defensive effort.
Instead, Honka only played a total of 42 games, served as the Dallas healthy scratch for a good portion of the season, and was even sent down to the Texas Stars (AHL) a handful of times.
It seemed like an unnecessary waste of his talent and left many fans to rally behind the 23-year-old. Hashtags and signs for the “Free Honka” movement began popping up as many fans turned against Hitchcock and his coaching staff and their “outdated” methods of defensive coaching. And yet, the Dallas Stars got results in the defensive zone, finishing with the seventh-lowest goals against average in the NHL.
With the new bench bosses in play that had a better knack for reaching and developing young talent, the expectation was there for Honka to finally get his chance and take the next step.
But that didn’t happen, either. Honka served as the healthy scratch on opening night as names like Roman Polak and the newly-acquired Connor Carrick slotted into the lineup above no. 6. And so, the “Free Honka” movement was kickstarted yet again until he made his debut nine days into the season.
This time around, however, the movement didn’t last as long. Honka ended up playing a total of 29 games during the 2018-19 regular season. 15 of those came in the months of November and December when the Stars’ blue line was plagued with injuries and they simply needed bodies to slot into the lineup. Even then, Honka quickly found himself being passed up by rookies like Gavin Bayreuther and Dillon Heatherington and even AHL-caliber players like Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley after getting time in a top-four role.
It wasn’t a good look for a defenseman that had recently held so much promise and hope. And somehow, it only got worse.
After playing 10:25 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at home in mid-January and posting a -1 rating, Honka skated off the ice for what would be the last time in the 2018-19 season. For the final four months of the year, he became the designated healthy scratch. The Stars even acquired Jamie Oleksiak and Ben Lovejoy prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, which pushed him down even further.
He fell to no. 8 and lower on the depth chart and continued to sink as the playoffs rolled around and the Stars called up AHL defenders like Hanley and Heatherington. Hanley even made his playoff debut against the St. Louis Blues while Honka was confined to late morning skates and the press box.
Throughout the 2018-19 regular season, the question was repeatedly asked: What do you want to see out of Honka?
Every time it was asked, Montgomery had a similar response.
“We want to see him play with more pace and take away time and space better,” said Montgomery prior to Honka’s scratching on opening night.
“We’d like to see more consistency in reading rushes defensively and puck pressure down low,” Montgomery added the day after Thanksgiving after Honka was scratched in favor of Gavin Bayreuther. “He gets caught watching and he’s not the only one.”
And so, Honka finished the past two seasons as a regular on the Dallas Stars roster but only 71 games, one goal, and eight points in an average of 13:18 on the ice. All in all, he has two goals and 13 points in 87 career NHL games. That’s a long fall for a guy that was viewed as a potential Calder Memorial Trophy finalist (awarded to the league’s top rookie) just a few years ago.
The questions have been lingering about the defender and his future. And in the 2019 offseason, they might finally get an answer.
That’s because Honka is slated to be a restricted free agent. With his entry-level deal carrying an AAV of $1,363,333 expiring, Honka will be in search of a new contract. And that’s where things could get interesting.
“I don’t think he’s tentative. 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.” – Jim Montgomery on Honka’s play
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill mentioned on exit interview day that they would have to make a decision over the summer regarding whether Honka is still a piece of the organization’s future or if he has now turned into an asset that could be used to gain something on the market.
And that’s the question at hand. Will the Stars qualify Honka and keep him around in hopes that he can impress the coaching staff enough next year to earn a starting spot? With three of the Stars’ usual starting six defenders becoming UFAs this summer, it seems as though the opportunity will be there for Honka to once again make his case.
On the other hand, no. 6 may have nothing left to gain here and simply be a trade piece. He’s only 23 and has shown that he has skills that could work in the NHL. The only problem is, they haven’t worked for the Stars’ past three coaching staffs. Still, there would likely be a handful of teams that would inquire about a trade for the young defender. Just a few seasons ago, the New York Rangers offered goaltender Cam Talbot to the Stars in exchange for Honka at the NHL Draft, but Dallas declined.
And so, the Honka debate will once again rage into the offseason. Is it time to dish him and move on now that the Dallas Stars have found their franchise cornerstones on the blue line? Or should he have another chance at cracking the lineup come next year and changing the opinions of the coaching staff?
One thing is certain: it will be an interesting storyline to follow.