Dallas Stars: Roman Polak May Be Wrapping Up NHL Career

DALLAS, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Roman Polak #45 of the Dallas Stars skates on to the ice to take on the Nashville Predators in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl on January 01, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Roman Polak #45 of the Dallas Stars skates on to the ice to take on the Nashville Predators in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl on January 01, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Roman Polak’s immediate future in hockey became a bit uncertain on Monday morning. With the defenseman (and pending UFA) signing a contract with HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic for next season, have we seen the last of Polak in the NHL? What does that mean for the Dallas Stars?

When the Dallas Stars signed Roman Polak to a one-year contract on July 1, 2018, no one really knew what to make of it.

The Stars were coming off of one of their best defensive seasons in the past decade, finishing with the sixth-fewest goals allowed in the League at 222 (2.71 GA/GP). They had finally embraced structure and strategy in the defensive zone and played a “defense first” style under head coach Ken Hitchcock after four seasons of “high-risk, high-reward” hockey under Lindy Ruff.

To make matters more promising, first-year head coach Jim Montgomery was inheriting a young and skilled blue line consisting of John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, Stephen Johns, and Julius Honka, among others, to use in crafting a new contender.

So, why Polak? He was 32 years old at the time and had been with three different teams since the 2013-14 season. His reputation centered around being a stay-at-home defenseman that used his 6-2, 240 lb. frame to disrupt offensive attacks, guard the front of the net, and contribute on the penalty kill.

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The signing went against the build of small, puck-moving defensemen that Dallas had invested in, but it was a low-risk signing that had upside for the team as they entered another new era with a different coaching staff.

As we know now, Polak became an important piece for the Dallas Stars defense in the 2018-19 season. With Stephen Johns sidelined for the entire year with post-traumatic headaches and post-concussion syndrome, the Stars had a hole in their top-four that needed a quick fix.

Polak not only provided a gritty, physical presence in his absence, but also served on the penalty kill unit and was a veteran presence alongside Heiskanen, who was adapting to life in the NHL.

Polak finished the year with one goal, nine points, a plus-9 rating, and an average of 19 minutes, 10 seconds of ice time in 77 games. He also had the second-most blocked shots (152) and hits (191) among Stars players.

His performance was rewarded with a one-year contract extension in June. Even though it was still unclear whether Johns would be able to return for the 2019-20 season and the free agency signing period left the door open for Dallas to potentially add a new defenseman, Polak had proven to be a solid depth investment for a Stars team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL at 200 (2.44 GA/GP) in the season prior.

There was no telling where Polak might fit into the Stars’ defensive mold, but he remained ready to help the team in any way possible.

Now, there’s no certainty that he will finish playing out the contract with Dallas after reports surfaced on Monday morning that Polak signed a three-year contract with HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic that will begin in the 2020-21 season.

In an interview with iSport.cz, Polak noted that he would rather stay at home and prepare for the upcoming season in the Czech Republic rather than return to North America for the NHL’s hopeful return to play.

“I am already determined to stay at home,” Polak said, according to a Czech to English translation. “If I really had to finish the NHL, I would go. But I will do everything to make it unnecessary. I will definitely be here next season.”

This move could not only signal that we have seen the last of Roman Polak in a Dallas Stars uniform, but also in the NHL as a whole.

And as it sounds in the translated stories, the idea of calling it a career at the NHL level has been brewing for a while.

As the Dallas Stars set out on their 2019-20 campaign, Polak resumed his role on the second pairing with Heiskanen. That would prove to be a short-lived endeavor, though, as Polak suffered a fractured sternum midway through the first game of the season against the Boston Bruins.

The injury would cause him to miss six weeks and 18 games. And by the time he returned, the Stars’ blue line was on the verge of shuffling in a substantial way.

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  • Jamie Oleksiak had proven to be a staple in the defensive scheme that could play in a top-four setting. Andrej Sekera was gaining the trust of the coaching staff as another veteran option that could play solid minutes. Stephen Johns joined the team for practice on Nov. 30 and eventually made his regular season debut on Jan. 18.

    As a result, Polak eventually took a bit of a backseat in the rotation. He and Sekera were bumped down to sixth and seventh on the depth chart once Johns returned to the lineup and alternated starts down the stretch in the shortened regular season. And while they both made the most of the situation, the reality of the matter is that being stuck in a rotation is difficult for any player.

    “When Stephen Johns started playing again after a two-year break caused by concussions, they gave him big ice time,” Polak said. “Our coach told me and Andrej Sekera that we will be rotating. I play one game, Andrej plays another game. It was difficult to find motivation because (it) doesn’t matter how well or badly I play, I won’t play next game in any case. And Andrej had the same opinion as me.”

    Polak played in 14 of the team’s final 22 games for a total of 41 in the year, with his final action coming on March 7 against the Nashville Predators. In those 14 games, he posted a minus-11 rating and skated an average of 16 minutes, 28 seconds per game. Those lacking numbers could very well have been due to a lack of motivation spawned from his altered lineup status.

    “Sometimes, I was sitting on the bench asking myself, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t want to be here,'” Polak added.

    In addition, Polak talked about his hesitancy regarding the NHL’s Return To Play Plan, including the shortened timeline and lingering uncertainty that a resumption will actually happen.

    “The NHL has approved another program, seven teams are over,” Polak said. “Now the question is what will happen next. If we flew there to training camps, they want us sooner, because we would have to quarantine for two weeks. But until it’s official, we will stay at home so that nothing happens and we do not hang somewhere halfway.”

    The 34-year-old is also skeptical about the heightened potential for injury in a potential return for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With all NHL activities being on pause since March 12 due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, many players from overseas have since traveled back home. The extended downtime has left them with limited resources to use in their efforts to stay in “game shape” and ready to return to play.

    “I will not lie, it is not for me,” Polak said. “The idea that I should jump on the ice after three weeks of training and start playing live. This is unimaginable at my age. Younger players may be able to do it, but I need two months before I get off the ground so I don’t have to do anything else.”

    That could end up being a worry for many NHL players. While some have been able to return to their team facilities for small group workouts as part of the NHL’s Phase 2 protocol, many are still working out in their own capacity across the globe.

    The typical NHL offseason lasts 2-4 months, depending on how far a team goes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With all players being away from team workouts for over three months now, getting teams together and players back up to speed in a short “training camp” setting will likely involve some hurdles.

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    And what about the thought of being quarantined in a hub city for however long a team survives in the postseason format?

    “It’s weird to go back to it like this,” Polak said. “Sometimes it occurs to me that there are an awful lot of questions. If it’s really worth the money and effort. The bubble, as they call it, that we should only stay at the hotel, at the stadium, and slowly they shouldn’t see each other. Even that costs a lot of money to start everything. Earnings would have to be worth it.”

    Polak concerns and feelings towards the NHL’s Return To Play Plan are probably shared by more players around the League and highlights some important questions that the NHL must eventually answer.

    The difference is that he may be viewing this unique situation as the endpoint of his NHL career.

    As Polak said, he will return and participate in this year’s postseason if he “really had to finish.” But with his status as a pending unrestricted free agent after this year and his concerns about returning for the modified playoff run, he and the Dallas Stars may mutually agree to terminate his contract. There has been no official decision on this yet.

    If a termination does happen, Polak’s NHL career may be at its end. He would finish with 806 games played, 140 points (26 goals, 114 assists), and a minus-8 rating, as well as eight trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final (in 2016 with the San Jose Sharks).

    The Stars would likely handle his absence by pushing Sekera into a full-time role on the third pairing with Jamie Oleksiak as well as on the penalty kill unit. Taylor Fedun would move from eighth to seventh on the defensive depth chart, and the door would be open for other defensemen (such as Joel Hanley, Dillon Heatherington, Gavin Bayreuther, and even Thomas Harley) to crack the expanded playoff roster.

    The Dallas Stars would also gain more consistency on a game-by-game basis on their blue line, which should play well in a playoff setting.

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    That is, if the Stanley Cup Playoffs can ever get underway in a safe and secure manner.