With the 2019 offseason coming in hot, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill got an early jump on free agency two weeks ago when he re-signed Roman Polak to a one-year extension. But in his second season with the Stars, how might Polak’s role change?
After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row in 2018 and hiring their third head coach in the past two seasons, the Stars needed answers and needed them fast. Their window to compete seemed to be inching to a close after multiple years of hanging open and something had to be done to light the fuse and push the team back into contention.
So what did GM Jim Nill do? Instead of taking a swing on the market and looking for some big names to fix their scoring problems on offense, the Stars signed Blake Comeau (who had scored 21 goals over the previous two years with Colorado) and Valeri Nichushkin (who had just returned from two seasons in the KHL). To fix the longstanding backup goaltender problem, he inked Anton Khudobin to a two-year contract.
Needless to say, the moves were accompanied by some raised eyebrows. While Khudobin seemed to carry impressive potential in regards to rounding out the Dallas crease, Nichushkin and Comeau didn’t look as though they would provide enough firepower to fix the team’s scoring plague.
And why on earth did they sign Roman Polak?
The question arose rather quickly on the morning of July 1 when the rumors and reports began spreading across Twitter. And when Dallas finalized the one-year, $1.3 million contract with the defensive defenseman, the questioning peaked.
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Where did Nill see a need for Polak? Didn’t finishing the 2017-18 season with the seventh-lowest goals against average in the NHL prove that the Dallas defense was in a good spot structurally? Were Esa Lindell, John Klingberg, Stephen Johns, Miro Heiskanen, Marc Methot, Julius Honka, and the talented prospects in the pipeline not enough to carry the defensive load?
Upon arrival, the assumption was that Polak would serve as a seventh defender, filling in on the third pairing whenever a starter was injured or hit a slump and finishing the season with maybe 50-55 games under his belt.
That didn’t end up happening for a handful of reasons. On the one hand, the Dallas Stars lost Stephen Johns to what would eventually be a season-ending injury before opening night. Marc Methot also got through the first month of the season before being shut down with a knee injury.
In addition, Julius Honka was unable to earn the trust of the coaching staff and ended up serving as the healthy scratch for most of the season.
That left three starting spots open, and Polak was the first option to help fill the void. With the Dallas Stars struggling out of the gate and trying to keep themselves afloat in the early playoff race, they needed veteran help on a blue line that had forcibly become much younger through the first 15 games.
And so, Polak filled in. He spent the majority of the year playing on the second pairing alongside rookie Miro Heiskanen, skating in a total of 77 games. Polak scored one goal, tallied nine points, and recored a +6 on-ice rating in an average of 19:10 on the ice each night. He was a staple on the Dallas penalty kill, led the team in blocked shots with 152, and led all defenders in hits with 191.
Polak also played in each of the Stars’ 13 playoff games, tallying one assist and a -2 rating in 19:29 of average ice time.
There were times when Polak played a critical role for the team (such as killing a big penalty in the third period) and times when he fell short of expectations and was bailed out by his rookie partner. For instance, Polak finished the season with the second-lowest 5-on-5 shots against total on the Dallas Stars roster with a -252. In many cases, he would struggle with tracking in the defensive zone and give up an open chance, though Heiskanen was able to salvage the play on many occasions.
But his debut was enough to earn him a new contract. Two weeks ago, the Stars re-signed Polak to another one-year deal worth $1.75 million.
So, while Polak’s new contract isn’t a sizable increase from his previous one (he will end up costing the Stars just $450K more) and he brings certain leadership and skill qualities to the team, what kind of role should he fill in the season ahead when considering his performance in 2018-19?
This is going to be dependent on a few things. For one, we know that Polak is a physical, defensive defenseman. On a blue line that excelled in puck movement and offensive pressure but lacked size and grit, Polak stuck out and provided the Stars with a new edge using his 6-2, 240 lb. frame. We also know that he’s a strong asset on the penalty kill and can play decent minutes. But he was also known for struggling in certain situations that could have been avoided.
So where does that leave him? Well, depending on how the Dallas blue line shapes up this summer, it could leave him in one of two positions.
With Methot on his way out and Fedun and Lovejoy also potentially departing via the free agent market, there will be spots available on the blue line. And with Jamie Oleksiak returning from injury, it looks as though two spots will be open.
If Stephen Johns is able to return from the post-traumatic headaches injury that sidelined him for all of the 2018-19 year and become a regular and consistent starter for the Stars once again, he should be able to fill the second pairing alongside Heiskanen. If not, he’s a solid option on the third pairing.
On top of that, the rumor is out there that the Dallas Stars are interested in acquiring a top-four defenseman this summer. Depending on whether Johns returns or not, the Stars will need to add another starting piece to the blue line. The addition will serve both as a precautionary measure and an added boost to the Dallas defense. The Stars will, however, have to keep make a few maneuvers in terms of the contract when acquiring this piece considering they likely won’t be able to promise any defender protection from the 2021 expansion draft.
Regardless of how that endeavors pans out, Polak’s role seems to be pretty simplified. He will likely serve either as the sixth or seventh defender on the roster, depending on how Johns and other Dallas prospects fit into the puzzle. He’ll probably play alongside Oleksiak whenever he’s in the lineup to form a shutdown third pairing that can utilize their physicality to limit chances and create turnovers.
Simply put: Polak will likely be much closer to playing the role that was originally intended for him when he first signed with the team. That role being a third-pairing guy that can rotate in and out of the lineup, boost the penalty kill in tough situations, provide vocal leadership and positive emotion in a relatively young locker room throughout the season and in a playoff race, and play in a shutdown role while averaging 14-16 minutes a game.
Now that Polak is locked in for another year after a respectable debut, let’s see what the rest of the offseason brings the Dallas Stars.