The Stars were unable to clear themselves from the pack in February and now find themselves treading water down the final stretch of the season. A head-scratching yearly series against Vancouver has come to a winless close, and the team has 9 contests remaining with only 2 facing playoff teams. Jani Hakanpää’s performance against the Canucks is been very concerning based on how he started off this season.
A cupcake schedule could not come at a better time, as the Stars have been leapfrogged in the playoff seeding by both Minnesota and Colorado. Oettinger & Miro need rest, Marchment needs to get healthy, and the Stars need to start playing more loose but the team is being hamstrung by a major deficiency as they have been all season long.
No player has regressed back to the average harder than Jani Hakanpää this season. A stellar team start to the year and a beneficial partnership with Esa Lindell allowed Jani Hakanpää to pass as a top 4 defenseman on a cup contender, right up until he couldn’t. After registering a -4 in last week’s OT heartbreaker against Seattle, Ryan Suter has been supplanted on Star’s Fans’ “Most Wanted list.”
Despite reaching career highs in goals, assists, and time on ice, the recent dip is revealing how the 30-year-old holds up to a full NHL season as he’s logged a -7 in the past 10 games. The Stars are not in a position to field many changes to their right-handed defense, based on the way they’ve constructed the team.
Jim Nill has said that the “draft is the best way to have overall success” and that’s where the issue truly began. The best RD drafted by the Stars since 2010 was an absolute sleeper, grabbing Klingberg in the 5th round of that year’s draft. After fumbling his situation and chalking it up to flat cap victimhood mere months ago, the Stars should easily have another RD waiting in the wings from the 12 drafts taking place since.
They would have been able to rest easy if they had hit on 2014 first-rounder Julius Honka. Easily the most frustrating prospect of the Stars in the last 20 years, the Stars found themselves without top-tier RD talent in their career primes (Klingberg age 30; Honka 27) this past offseason.
To make matters worse, the Stars had other demands the offseason prior that were also brought about by draft misfortune. The Seattle expansion draft stole Jamie Oleksiak’s massive defensive presence from the Stars coming off the bubble run. Thus, there was a demand for a sizeable player on the backend and at $1.5 million a year Hakanpää can do just that.
Although, that amount of funds indicates to me that he’s not supposed to be soaking up close to 20 minutes of ice time a game. Fast forward to the Klingberg blunder & Honka whiff, the Stars indicated the same mindset by shipping a 1 and a 2 for Nils Lundkvist this offseason.
The handling of Nils Lundkvist is the strangest event to unfold this season, even with the string of 2-3 OT losses. The capital that was sent in return indicated that the organization had a role he could immediately fill, not that he would be doing basically the same thing here that he would be in New York.
The troubling part of this implementation is that the role is still there to be claimed on the second power play unit. The Stars do not need to be playing Ryan Suter on the power play, unless they just have some sick obsession with point shots that don’t make it through. Instead, they need to utilize his progression to the mean and level out Hakanpaa’s play.
It seems as though Ryan Suter and Jani Hakanpaa have switched bodies and, surprisingly enough, the 38-year-old appears to be stepping up down the stretch. This behavior needs to be rewarded with the first stability Suter’s seen from a d-partner this season.
Despite being the slowest possible combo of partners, they only need to play bottom-pair minutes to shore up the bottom tier. Miller has been a God-send of a patchwork signing, and he could be the facilitator on Lindell’s right. This way, Lundkvist could play with the most defensively responsible d-man in the division to allow him to play more freely.
The pressure on Nils to play a disciplined game is keeping him from actually playing his game. Those that argue that Miro playing on his heels more would hold his offense back should note the selling point on Nils Lundkvist was his offensive prowess, making up for whatever deficit that Miro would incur. If they expected it from Colin Miller or Jani Hakanpaa, they wouldn’t have paid them each less than $2 million AAV respectively.
Realigning the d-pairings would allow each player to lean into their strengths and Hakanpäää could be the physical presence they need without absorbing a top 4 workload, aside from the PK. Miller has been worth his weight in gold so far this year and needs to be leveraged for better depth in this group.
The time is now for the team to make these adjustments, as the sample size for toggling the lineup gets shorter. Understanding that you’ll probably draw Minnesota in round one, the team could use the last 9 games to galvanize these lines. The less the team has to utilize Jani Hakanpää as a top four, the longer they’ll make their run. He’ll continue to receive higher billing since he’s a useful penalty killer, but his lack of consistent offense has rendered his defense inexcusable. Covering up this deficiency is key to this year’s outcome, and the true resolution will come next offseason.
There is still a slot as the bottom pair big man for Hakanpää next year, though that spot will be designated for Lian Bichsel in the following year. With Jani Hakanpää’s contract expiring and Bichsel being a lefty, the Stars certainly can’t see light at the end of the RD talent gap tunnel. A cure for this would be Christian Kyrou making a huge leap these next two years and securing a role next to Bichsel, which isn’t too much of a pipe dream with the way he’s played this year.
Given the chaos outlined previously, the Stars will need to spend huge in the offseason for a real RD talent that stays long-term. With the hope that Lundkvist & Kyrou pan out serving as 2 RD spots, the Stars need more than just hope to play next to Lindell or Heiskanen.
With Jani Hakanpää’s huge drop, the Stars cupboard feels quite bare on the defensive right. With little time to experiment and less security in their standing, the pressure is on to solve these before the season’s end. Once the 2023 post-mortem reveals that this is the Stars’ biggest weak spot, another scramble for a solution will be made in the offseason. The results of each situation will determine what light the team’s campaign is remembered in.