Even in the midst of a season where the team is reaching heights of early success and standing at the top of the table, there are deficiencies that will raise the occasional eyebrow. The early indicators of a subtle issue with the lineup may be showing its head, as Nils Lundkvist received a trio of healthy scratches to close November and begin December. This defense information could easily be overlooked, since Joel Hanley stepped in and shored up his area of the ice as he often does.
However, the benching of Lundkvist highlights an issue that the Stars have been experiencing for close to a year that has been hidden and potentially unsolved by the off-season’s investments.
Defense Pairings: Chemistry Project
As indicated by the shuffling of pairings on the blue line, Dallas has struggled a bit to find solid chemistry on the back end. The deficiencies of some of these pairs have been covered up by yet another outstanding stretch of games by Miro Heiskanen. The malleability of the young superstar makes up for any baggage brought to the table by his right-handed counterparts, to the tune of Colin Miller registering a plus-14 with only 7 points (1 goal, 6 assists) to his name.
Not to make light of Colin’s body of work prior to Dallas, but if the season ended now it would be the first in his career that his +/- lands positive. Needless to say, Miro anchors a left side that has fairly cemented roles in the lineup.
With Miro being irreplaceable at 1LD, the rest of the left is immoveable for different reasons. I would argue that Esa Lindell is next in line when it comes to importance, on the left and in the unit as a whole. Most often paired with Hakanpaa, the second defense pairing often neutralizes scoring defensively and by not paying it back in their own end.
The remaining cast falls into place with Suter’s near $4 million cap hit resting on the left and absorbing the youthful energy that Lunkvist brings, allowing Colin Miller to find his footing on the roster across from Miro. However, now that we’re nearing the 30-game point it may be time to find a more natural fit.
With the top lines outlined above, the productivity of the top 4 is personified by their plus/minus. The combined +/- of Heiskanen-Miller is +21 and the bruising brethren Lindell-Hakanpaa is +23. The plan may have been to help Lundkvist grow up by playing with a seasoned vet, but his combo with Suter is bringing a -9 to the table as Suter has only been able to contribute 4 assists while remaining goalles.
I’ll admit that the line between “seasoned vet” and “old geezer” is quite thin (see Mark Giordano), but there are other qualities that a defensive partner brings to the table that make it easier to develop raw talent. The problem rests at the feet of this final pairing and forcing them to work things out to protect the other pairings.
Defense Pairings: One Bad Apple
Although the decision may ultimately be more statistically formulaic, the first question that pops into my mind is why they may not work well together. The qualms that I have with Suter as a player are generally the reason why I believe he isn’t a solid partner for a developing youth. He plays a simple, selfish game that doesn’t bode well for team play and is more geared towards shielding his stat sheet and approaching the bench after a goal against saying “well, at least I had my guy.”
Studying his body language during the game, gathering opinions from past teammates (notably Jason Arnott), and objectively seeing that Minnesota was willing to buy him out at about $7 million for 5 years indicates that he isn’t valued for anything he brings to the table off the ice. Nils didn’t leave New York to carry the weight of an aging hockey hermit and it shows when his play flourishes apart from Suter.
Now that Miller is settled into the lineup and Lundkvist is coming into his own, the team will benefit between swapping their d-partners and elevating Nils to play with Miro. Colin Miller may not have come to Dallas to hold Suter up, so the decision to move on from him and buy out his remaining two years my provide better ROI than playing him 22 minutes per game.
The past two games have shown that the offense greatly benefits from a Lundkvist-Suter divorce as Miro chipped in 2 early goals with his new partner and Nils has scored in each of the past two, both resulting in OT wins.
I’ll assume that the counterargument to this lineup shift would be the potential volatility of Miller’s game suffering while being subjected to the whims of a Suter partnership. This is where it helps to be a bit of an NHL journeyman. Miller has adapted to many roles that have been asked of him, playing for 4 teams in 8 years, and he’s solidified his spot in the lineup enough to warrant a level of trust that would make it a safe move.
The promotion of Lundkvist is something that fans have been clamoring about, to a certain degree, since his upside was described as a supplement to Miro Heiskanen. If partnering Nils with a grizzled vet was intended to help him grow, aligning him with a Norris candidate will be a hard launch into a realm of early success.
Defense Pairings: Indicative Investments
The answer to this problem has been premeditated by the front office, if you look at their method of resolution displayed this past offseason. The declining play of Suter has been thought of as a means for buyout and if the team already has that on their mind, they’ll need to replace him with talent under an efficient contract.
The easy answer is highly touted prospect Thomas Harley, who already has played well when called upon, but the Stars didn’t stop there when gathering options. Colin Miller and Nils Lunkdvist were acquired this offseason to shore up the right side and keep Miro on his natural left. With Klingberg gone and Suter locked into a spot on the left, these weren’t the only necessary moves to prep for the year.
Investing a first-round pick is the most revealing way to signal to your team that this is the position of most need and Lian Bichsel is a sign that further shifts to the left may be in order. Couple that with a retread of Will Butcher and the smoke signals couldn’t possibly indicate more that the defense will be retooled.
Next year there’s a certainty that Harley will be NHL ready, leaving no spot for Suter, and the coming years we’ll see a shift from Lindell to Bichsel unless Harley doesn’t pan out. All this to say that the Stars will only be dealing with Ryan Suter for the remainder of this year before the decisions for LD are based on merit/talent instead of sunk costs and days gone by.
With Dollars allocated to their best players and the other 38-year-old on the roster being more deserving of funds, Suter finds himself squeezed by the Stars cap situation. Stars fans are taking more and more issue with Suter as he becomes the more glaring weak link in the chain, and the prior investments in the offseason don’t help his cause. The desperation of the ensuing offseason also fails to induce optimism for Suter as the team is without a pick in the draft.
The capital needed to build and tinker for a Cup run rests in picks oftentimes, and the sacrifice of Nils for a 1st consequentially makes him their 2023 1st rounder (same justification Cowboys fans used for Amari Cooper in 2018). There’s value that can be drawn by Suter’s last 50 games, it’s just a matter of properly allocating it without hindering the team’s long-term growth.
All in all, if the Stars view the defense deficits through this lens then the problems will be easy to overcome. Phase 1 of introducing Lundkvist and Miller to the lineup has been completed and it’s time to engage Phase 2 and show the firepower a Nils-Miro pairing would have as the top duo. Accommodating Suter for the downward slope of his deal is a task the Stars aren’t ill-equipped for and aligning him with Miller preps the team for a Harley replacement in the coming offseason.
With these moves, DeBoer achieves the even distribution he’s looking for when delegating ice time to the team without sacrificing optimal utilization. The firepower of the team’s dynamic forward lines has been explosive to start the season but getting more out of this defense core will further elevate their game as the season marches on.