The NHL Network released their ranking of the Top 20 Defensemen in the league right now on Sunday night. Two Dallas Stars defenders found their way onto the list, and their ranking only further sets the stage for both to have impressive campaigns in the 2019-20 season.
Every NHL team is known for one overarching theme in a given season. Whether it’s tanking, surging, owning the best power play, or dealing with front office drama, there’s a number of themes that each team can adopt. And in the 2018-19 season, the Dallas Stars were known for one thing: their defense.
While the Dallas offense struggled to put up goals for a majority of the 2018-19 campaign, the Stars rallied around their blue line and crease as they surged out of a slow start and secured a wild card spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. From there, they used another impressive defensive showing to knock off the Nashville Predators in the first round and take the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to seven games in round two.
The Stars posted the second-lowest goals against average in the NHL during the 2018-19 regular season, giving up 2.44 goals per game. And while they used 14 different defenders, boasted a relatively young core, and fought an uphill battle against injuries and other outside factors throughout the 82-game push, they managed to turn in one of the most successful performances in franchise history.
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Now, a substantial dose of credit must be paid to Dallas goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Both put on superb performances in the crease and split playing time fairly evenly. They fed off of each other, kept the Stars in close games, and helped a struggling offense stay afloat in a rickety start to the regular season.
But the defense deserves its fair share of applause as well. After being just two seasons removed from posting the second-worst defensive numbers across the NHL, the Dallas Stars bounced back with a bit of an unlikely group to become one of the elite defensive teams in the League.
Esa Lindell took another impressive leap forward in his development as a top-pairing NHL defender. He skated heavy minutes, played a substantial role on the power play and penalty kill, and accessed his physical side more frequently as he played a relatively quiet but all the more valuable role on the Dallas blue line.
John Klingberg missed six weeks of action early in the season after breaking his hand while blocking a shot in November, but didn’t let the injury hold him back from another productive year as the team’s No. 1 defenseman. In 64 starts, Klingberg had 10 goals and 45 points while posting a new career-high in average ice time (24:32) and playing in a variety of situations and with multiple partners.
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Miro Heiskanen made his NHL debut with the Dallas Stars on opening night and didn’t look back. He assimilated to the speed and style of the league faster than most expected and began making an immediate and consistent impact on the Dallas blue line. He could play in any number of situations, provided a sizable punch on offense, defense, and special teams, and only got better as the season went along.
Roman Polak turned out to be a necessary signing from the 2018 summer as he essentially filled the void that was left by Stephen Johns, who missed the entire season with post-traumatic headaches. While he struggled at times with playing a top-four role, he provided enough to round out the Dallas top four and brought a physical edge to a Stars’ defense that lacked one.
Taylor Fedun started the season in Buffalo’s AHL system but was acquired by Dallas in early November and turned into a regular starter on the third pairing. Jamie Oleksiak was reacquired from Pittsburgh in late January and provided an extra dose of size and physicality on the bottom pairing. Ben Lovejoy was brought in at the deadline and added an important dose of experience to the bottom portion of the Dallas defense.
It was a bit of a makeshift lineup at times, but the Dallas Stars turned it into something impressive and set themselves up for a bright future in the defensive end.
And on Sunday night, the NHL Network helped reinforce that belief by pinning two Dallas defenders on their list of the Top 20 Defensemen in the NHL right now.
John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen both cracked the list made by NHL Network analysts, with John Klingberg slotting in at 12th and Heiskanen ringing in at 17th. Klingberg fell two spots from his ranking at 10th overall on their 2018 list, while Heiskanen is making his first appearance after an impressive rookie showing.
Dallas is one of five teams to boast two defensemen on the list, with St. Louis, Boston, Columbus, and San Jose also obtaining the title.
And while some Stars fans may make the argument that Esa Lindell should be considered, this list provides a fair ranking of Dallas defenders when compared to the rest of the crop in the NHL.
Since breaking onto the scene as a rookie in the 2014-15 season, Klingberg has taken impressive leaps forward in his development while playing a big role for the Stars. He’s been the team’s No. 1 defenseman since the beginning of the 2016-17 season and has further rounded out his skills over the past two seasons.
He’s a point-producing machine, posting 259 (52 goals, 207 assists) in 367 regular season games since 2014-15 as well as a plus-minus rating of plus-45 over his career. He’s also one of the league’s best power play quarterbacks, with 94 of his 259 career points coming on the man advantage. In addition, he’s also an experienced penalty killer. He possesses impressive skating and passing skills and reads the ice well.
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Klingberg has also become more responsible and dedicated in the defensive zone over the past few seasons to further polish his overall game. He can log big minutes (including an average of 24:32 this past season) and has averaged 23:19 over his career. He finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting in the 2017-18 season and certainly has the potential to win one or more before his career ends.
Though he only played in 64 games during the 2018-19 regular season due to a hand injury, he finished fourth on the team and first among defensemen in points with 45. He also led all Dallas defenders in points during the Stanley Cup Playoffs with nine (two goals, seven assists) and led the team in plus-minus with a plus-8 rating.
He’s a reliable option that can play in any situation for the Dallas Stars and is just now entering the peak years of his hockey career at the age of 27. The fact that the Stars have him on one of the biggest bargain contracts in the NHL (he’s currently entering the fifth year of a seven-year deal with an AAV of $4.25 million) at the moment is simply an added bonus.
And then there’s Miro Heiskanen. After setting a high expectation bar for himself in Finland during the 2017-18 season, the Stars’ No. 3 overall pick in 2017 found a way to not only meet that bar, but exceed it in his first NHL season.
Heiskanen assimilated to the speed and style of the NHL relatively early on and found a way to make a quick and lasting impact in the Stars’ top four. He spent a majority of the season playing alongside Roman Polak and wowed Stars fans and NHL fans alike with an ability to seemingly always be in the right place at the right time.
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His skating and passing abilities are remarkable for a rookie, as is his vision and ability to break out of the defensive zone. He’s an excellent puck mover and always finds a way to limit damage or danger in the defensive zone. Upon transitioning to the offensive zone using a well-timed pass or his own speed and puck handling skills, Heiskanen also packs a scoring punch. He finished his rookie campaign with 12 goals (first among Dallas defensemen) and 33 points in a full 82-game push and followed it up with two goals and four points in 13 playoff games.
Heiskanen led all NHL rookies in average ice time at 23:07 per game and played in a variety of situations at even strength as well as on the power play and penalty kill. His efforts in the first half of the season were also enough to land him a spot in the 2019 NHL All-Star Game.
His speed and vision were unmatched among rookie NHL defenders, and he quickly turned himself into one of the Stars’ most valuable players.
No stage seemed to be too big for Heiskanen in his rookie season as he helped push the Dallas Stars to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. The fact that he did all of that before his 20th birthday seems to make his future all the more brighter.
With Klingberg and Heiskanen, the Dallas Stars have two key components to their defensive future. Both are young, talented at their position, and always find a way to rise to the occasion. To add onto that, there’s reason to believe that the best years for both are still to come.
That not only bodes well for a Dallas Stars defense with high expectations going into the 2019-20 season, but also for the many seasons to come with Nos. 3 and 4 manning the blue line.