The final cuts have come down the wire and the Dallas Stars opening night roster has been solidified. The good news is that there were no surprises, but the execution of a methodical plan does not eliminate intriguing storylines.
As certain unnamed members of the defense core age out, the performance of the entry-level youth on the team becomes that much more important to the team’s trajectory. Here you will find three of the vast differences between those youths and how the outcomes of their opportunities will impact this campaign’s outcome.
Three unique positions of the young Dallas Stars D-Core: Thomas Harley
The saving grace of the Dallas Stars defense down the stretch last year, without any trade deadline acquisitions, was the insertion of Thomas Harley into the rotation. This time last year, there was a dubious attitude on Harley’s capabilities and what he’d need to do to stick at the pro level.
The coaching staff saw fit to incubate his game at the AHL level and give him a full, continual season of progression, as opposed to the back and forth between Cedar Park and Dallas that he’d been subjected to in his 20-year-old season. Now the 6’3”, 205 lb. defenseman has the Stars faithful excited for him to take on a bigger role as a top 4 defenseman with more ice time and penalty killing responsibilities.
The last six games of the season, in addition to his postseason prestige, serve as enough of a sample size (11 pts in 26 games, +5) to confirm the need for his AHL stint to refine his raw talent. He was drafted for his offensive skills, but the defending at the next level comes with time and exposure.
After posting 34 points in 66 games, Dallas Stars Head Coach Pete DeBoer trusted Harley enough to relegate the ice times of Nils Lundkvist and Colin Miller in his favor. DeBoer knew what he was doing, as the shift led to a Western Conference Finals bid and the galvanization of the Stars defense core. This season, it’s up to Harley to prove the coaching staff right again by paying off this fresh confidence in his game with solid penalty killing and maintained offensive prowess at 5-on-5.
The Stars made an investment in the future of their power play and offensive defense when trading for Nils Lundkvist and the power play is Nils’ proving ground. Harls has his work cut out for him on the penalty kill since the Stars lost their most valuable penalty killer in Luke Glendening.
The Stars are making up for Glendening’s loss by elevating the play of the group as a whole, with Harley being a contributor expected to make an extensive leap forward. Outside of tightening up when down a man, Harley will need to lean into his elite outlet passing and premier skating ability to maintain solid point outputs at even strength. If his play and deployment hold firm, he’ll perpetuate the status he earned in the playoffs as a facilitator of team success.
Three unique positions of the young Dallas Stars D-Core: Nils Lundkvist
We were all mesmerized by the headlines when we found out that Jim Nill found a player worth trading a first-round pick for. As the season came and went without his lineup spot being firmly secured, we find ourselves starting this campaign waiting on the investment to materialize.
The opportunities have been there, as the youngster had 60 games to prove his worth and a spot on the second power play to leverage his value. Ultimately, he could not be trusted when crunch time arrived and was scratched for the entirety of the postseason. His path is the antithesis of Harley’s, as he’s on a quest to earn that trust back.
Lundkvist delivered on the offensive skill that was purchased prior to the 2023 season, as he led rookie defensemen in goals with 6. That scoring punch was sorely missed on the second power play when he was scratched, especially considering that his replacement was Ryan Suter.
Unfortunately, Nils has to hold his own defensively for the 13+ minutes that he spends at even strength to justify his 2nd unit deployment. While the flash of his offense is sexier than defensive responsibility, that defensive stinginess is where he needs to butter the Stars’ bread. The Stars are not giving this assignment of reparation to him solely, which is where it gets easier for Nils.
Pete DeBoer isn’t looking at the d-pairings and singling out weak spots, like we fans generally do when we put on our armchair GM hats. He’s looking for success with the 3rd pair and how Nils and Lindell can play off of each other. Nils will have plenty of shots to light up the PP2, but Harley’s capabilities stop him short of being mandatory in that role.
To shake the stigma of being a liability at 5-on-5, the young Swede will need to play well with the Godfather of the Finnish mafia. With Lindell’s ability to condense the incoming attack, he’ll look to help Nils find his footing and establish a level of consistency we haven’t seen at the NHL level.
Three unique positions of the young Dallas Stars D-Core: Lian Bichsel
The flashiest of the young defensemen really pops out at you and has been the object of all our obsessions this offseason. The plan has been for him to have a Harley-like stay at the AHL level this year and foster his game for the North American setting.
After seeing him play, and with the uncertainty of Hakanpaa’s health, there were a handful of prognosticators musing about his potential for the opening night roster. At the end of the day, the plan of AHL incubation won out and he was sent down to gain what’s been missing from his game: consistency.
As he mirrors the path of Harley, Stars’ brass are seeking the same results as Nils Lundkvist. The challenge with young defensemen is getting their game to be more consistent. After two years of up and down shifting between Leksands and their Junior team, Lian broke his ankle in a tune-up game for the World Championships.
He displayed his prowess in the lone Traverse City match that he played before tweaking his knee and then roared out to a solid start to the preseason with 3 assists in 2 games. The exhibitions wrapped last week and he went the last 3 games without registering a point, although his defensive capabilities were certainly evident. It’s in his best interest to do exactly what the Stars have assigned him to do and dip his toes in the water down in Travis County.
At the age of 19, there’s no pressure or circumstances to look into that mirror his predecessors in Lundkvist and Harley. Rightfully so, as they’re each 3 years his senior and on the end of expiring contracts. To prove himself on this continent, Lian Bichsel just needs to continue playing his game.
He’s inherently physically superior to the competition he’ll face in the AHL so his body needs no acclimation. He can fine-tune the offensive skill that has grown this past offseason and adjust his defensive style to the speed of the forwards associated with NHL organizations. Despite being mostly without pressure, he’s still worth the cost of an AHL TV subscription to get Texas Stars broadcasts this year alone.