The Dallas Stars only use five defenders, and they’re winning games

Today, we examine the Dallas Stars' defender deployment and evaluate how the core is handling the '5 D' ice time spread.
Vegas Golden Knights v Dallas Stars - Game Five
Vegas Golden Knights v Dallas Stars - Game Five / Sam Hodde/GettyImages

A big storyline of the Dallas Stars’ playoff run has been the deployment of their defenders. Specifically, here is the breakdown of total TimeOnIce (TOI) and 5v5 minutes played per game by each of Dallas’ six defenders:

  • Miro Heiskanen: ~27 TOI, ~23 mins 5v5
  • Thomas Harley: ~24 TOI, ~21 mins 5v5
  • Chris Tanev: ~23 TOI, ~20 mins 5v5
  • Esa Lindell: ~23 TOI, ~20 mins 5v5
  • Ryan Suter: ~19 TOI, ~17 mins 5v5
  • Nils Lundkvist ~5 TOI, ~5 mins 5v5

The average TOIs add up to ~120 mins of ice time, which is what two defenders would add up to during most 60-minute games (60 x 2). Mathematically, this does work, but is it sustainable?

Historic Ice Time Numbers

First, we will look at each defender's TOI history to see if there is an increased overall TOI. We will use the average regular season TOI per game from the last two regular seasons and any available playoff deployment info.

  1. Miro Heiskanen (~27 TOI): ~25 TOI/GP last 2 regular seasons, ~28 TOI/GP last playoffs, ~26 TOI/GP playoff career
  2. Thomas Harley (~24 TOI): ~21 TOI/GP first full regular season, ~16 TOI/GP first playoffs
  3. Chris Tanev (~23 TOI): ~20 TOI/GP last 2 regular seasons, ~20 TOI/GP in 2021-2022 with Calgary
  4. Esa Lindell (~23 TOI): ~20 TOI/GP last 2 regular seasons, ~21 TOI/GP last playoffs, ~24 TOI/GP playoff career
  5. Ryan Suter (~19 TOI): ~20 TOI/GP last 2 regular seasons, ~24 TOI/GP last 3 playoffs

Miro Heiskanen will always play the most minutes among Dallas defenders, and after the last few years of deployment, we can’t worry about using him efficiently since he’s needed to play ~27 minutes per game, and the team seems to like him in that routine, whether it’s optimal or not. 

Chris Tanev sticks out to me from this list, where Tanev is playing ~3 minutes more per game in the playoffs, which is ~4-6 extra shifts per game compared to the regular season. This could take a toll on the 34-year-old veteran playing in his first playoffs since the 2021-2022 season with Calgary.

Heiskanen knows the role and has practiced playoff efforts every year, while Tanev had an early summer break last season and played through multiple injuries the last time he was in the playoffs. We may get Chris Tanev for the entire playoff run, but he may be hurt and taxed with an increase in ice time.

As Thomas Harley grows into a top-four dynamo, the increase in opportunity seems fair. However, as an offensive-branded defenseman, I’m curious if the ~3-minute TOI increase per game as well as the lack of production (2 points in 11 games) correlate, since if I were in that situation, I’d focus on keeping my energy and composure against playoff opponents and making simple/smart plays rather than exerting unneeded energy for ‘Thomas Harley-branded’ plays such as strong transition play and attacking as a ‘4th forward’.

Thomas Harley’s game is grounded in his skating and instincts, and he may feel he has less room to be himself and more of an inclination to ‘stay at home’. More playoff experience may help him eventually feel comfortable to be the offensive option that he embodied so well in his first full regular season.

I’m not concerned about Ryan Suter or Esa Lindell since Esa Lindell has been playing ‘shutdown’ playoff minutes for years while Ryan Suter’s ice time has been monitored and lowered to a workable third-pair & relatively sheltered role.

D Pairing Metrics

Let’s look at the most common D pairings for the Stars during the playoffs and investigate the metrics for each popular pairing at 5v5 (min. 50 mins together via NaturalStatTrick).


5v5 Mins.


































**CF% = Corsi For %, FF% = Fenwick For %, xGF% = Expected Goals For %, HDCF% = High-Danger Corsi For %, OZS% = Offensive Zone Start %**

From the table above, it is clear that Dallas’ defensive structure allows shots from low-danger areas but mitigates high-danger chances. We know this because of the differences between the shot quantity and the shot quality metrics above.

Specifically, the shot quantity metrics like shot attempts (CF%) and unblocked shot attempts (FF%) for most of these D pairings are close to 50%, meaning that both teams trade equal chances when those pairings are on the ice, while the shot quality metrics involving expected goals (xGF%) and high-danger shot attempts (HDCF%) are at an elite level for the top two pairings and very strong for the third most common pairing of Suter-Tanev, meaning that the value of shots Dallas offers exceeds the value of shots that opponents take.

For the rest of the playoff run, I am unsure how the D pairings will hold up. Fatigue is a real thing that isn't visible from stats like these. This table shows us that based on past results, Dallas Stars defenders have successfully prioritized mitigating quality and protecting the house as opposed to stretching the DZ to protect against quantity. I’d argue that they could continue this into later rounds based on the team's success against two tough teams (Vegas and Colorado). It will be interesting to see if any defenders get banged up or tired from being overwhelmed by opposing playoff offenses.

Nils Lundkvist has only played 50 minutes of 5v5 hockey in 11 games, which is about ~5 minutes per game, and did not make the 50-minute pairing cutoff. When lowering the minimum TOI requirement to 10 minutes together, Lundkvist played 19 5v5 minutes with Suter and 18 with Lindell, playing exceptionally well with Lindell (71% xGF%, 9-4 shots), while below-average with Suter (47% xGF%, 6-11 shots). 

Final Thoughts

Depending on the availability and trust in Lian Bichsel, the Stars may not have to run with five defenders each game. Still, this might be the norm until it fails (which could be never). It's probable that the NHL club has a system for tracking athlete stamina and can monitor if these defenders are being overworked, so I'd give the Dallas Stars organization the benefit of the doubt.

Will we see injuries to our key defenders occur during these playoffs? Players like Chris Tanev will play 4-6 more shifts each game, and Heiskanen continues to play in all situations for almost half of each game. If one of the five defenders goes down, the ‘Jenga tower’ may shake a lot.

I wish the best for the D core, and if this strategy takes the Stars to the ‘promised land’, it begs the question of the importance of defender depth. While the Stars’ D core is great, there are comparable D cores around the league, and it seems that the forward depth has been the significant piece for overwhelming opponents during the Stars’ playoff run so far.