Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
When the 2016-17 regular season began, the Dallas Stars had a bit of a defensive crisis on their hands. After winning the Western Conference regular season title in the season prior and falling one win short of the Western Conference Finals, the Stars spent the summer parting ways with a good chunk of their blue line.
Alex Goligoski was a pending UFA and couldn’t come to terms on a new deal in Dallas, so the team traded the rights to the veteran alternate captain to the Arizona Coyotes. Jason Demers signed with the Florida Panthers on July 2, and Kris Russell signed with the Edmonton Oilers just before the regular season began.
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That left Dallas without half of the starting defense that they had used to end the 2015-16 season. John Klingberg became a No. 1 defenseman, Johnny Oduya was entering the final year of his contract, and the Stars had a crop of young defenders that were expected to step up in the season ahead.
And while the Stars would finish the 2016-17 campaign with the second most allowed goals in the NHL and with one of their worst records since moving to Dallas, the season provided a valuable lesson for the young defense. That included rookie Esa Lindell.
Lindell took a significant step forward in his development during the 2016-17 season and eventually earned a spot on the top pairing alongside Klingberg. Since then, it’s been hard to separate the two, regardless of which coach is behind the bench.
The thing about Lindell and Klingberg is that they provide a good balance with each other. Lindell, 25, has grown into a reliable two-way defender that can eat up heavy minutes (he averaged 24:20 during the 2018-19 season), provide a physical edge, play on the power play and penalty kill, and contribute an offensive touch to the game.
Klingberg, 26, has been in Dallas for five seasons now and has proven himself to be one of the more reliable and offense-savvy defenders in the NHL. While also playing heavy minutes (he’s averaged over 24 minutes in each of the past two seasons), he can quarterback a power play, set up offensive rushes, contribute 60+ points per season when healthy, and has a knack for reading the game well.
The duo has been tough to split up in years past because they have a knack for working well together and limiting potential danger and damage while also contributing in the offensive zone. And with Lindell signing a six-year extension in May and Klingberg still boasting three years on his current deal, the two will likely stay together and frontline the Dallas defense.
Now, there may be times where Miro Heiskanen steps into Lindell’s spot (specifically on offensive zone draws) after creating an impressive pairing with Klingberg in various stints throughout the 2018-19 season. It will all depend on what the on-ice situation calls for.
But as of right now, it’s hard not to envision no. 23 and no. 3 on the top pairing come Oct. 3.
Miro Heiskanen – Stephen Johns
This is where things could get interesting.
As of right now, here’s what we know: Miro Heiskanen exceeded expectations in his rookie season, grabbed the attention of the NHL world, and wowed opponents with an incredible balance of speed, offensive prowess, defensive focus, puck-handling mastery, and overall reliability. No task seemed too tall for the 19-year-old and he earned himself a full-time spot in the top three on the Dallas blue line.
But while Heiskanen’s spot is locked up, the defender being put next to him could be a mystery altogether. A lot of it depends on the health and status of Stephen Johns.
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic headaches during the 2018 preseason following a concussion injury that ended his 2017-18 campaign, Johns missed the entirety of the 2018-19 season. And while the Dallas Stars could have used the young and developing defenseman, they still found a way to succeed and put up some of the best defensive numbers in the NHL.
Adding him back into the fold would only make them that much more dangerous.
On paper, Johns seems to be an ideal partner for Heiskanen. When you combine Heiskanen’s speed and well-rounded attributes with the size and shutdown ability of Johns, the two seem as though they would balance out rather well.
"“Yes, because of his length, because of his lateral movement, and his ability to skate and take away time and space and Miro’s ability to read off someone. If you look at all of the different partners Miro had, it seemed like he could assimilate to any new partner within half a period.” –Jim Montgomery on if Heiskanen and Johns would pair well together"
But that all depends on if Johns is ready for in-game action by the time Oct. 3 rolls around. He’s been training throughout the summer and practiced with the Stars’ prospects for a good chunk of the 2019 development camp sessions. And while he didn’t directly talk to the media, Montgomery confirmed that he felt good after the on-ice sessions and that there were positive signs.
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill has pointed out that they expect and hope that Johns will be ready for opening night.
If he is, it would make the Dallas defense deeper and give the blue line a new element, especially when you consider Johns’ breakout campaign in 2017-18.
“He’s long, he has length, he can skate, he’s big, he’s physical, he can handle people down low, he can score goals with a bomb of a shot,” Montgomery pointed out at development camp. “There’s a lot of elements of his game that are going to make the Dallas Stars better.”
We’ll have to wait and see on that decision. But if Johns is ready, expect him to slot back into the top four and help round out an already dominant group.