For the first time in many years, there is genuine excitement about the Dallas Stars as the 2014-15 season approaches. Coming off a season that saw the club return to the playoffs after a five-year absence, Stars general manager Jim Nill has rapidly assembled a club that has formidable talent depth up front and tremendous team speed.
Nill added the likes of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to a forward corps that is led by Tyler Seguin and team captain Jamie Benn. Second-year pro Valeri Nichushkin showed flashes of brilliance his rookie season and has star-caliber upside as he continues to develop. The addition of Spezza allows Dallas to slot Cody Eakin as its third-line center to create a formidable 1-2-3 punch down the middle. The Stars also have a strong supporting cast in their bottom six that offers speed, grit, agitation and even a bit of offensive pop.
The Stars have had underrated starting goaltending for several years, dating back to the acquisition of Kari Lehtonen. When healthy, the big Finn has quietly been one of the NHL’s steadier and more reliable goaltenders in recent years. Lehtonen’s play was a big part of the reason why the Stars even got close to making the playoffs in 2010-11, 2011-12 and the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign. The offseason addition of Anders Lindbäck represents an upgrade in the Stars’ backup position from many of Lehtonen’s backups in recent years.
Lindy Ruff has long been considered one of the NHL’s sharpest head coaches. In his first season in Dallas, he navigated the Stars through some treacherous waters. There were a couple of prolonged losing streaks — one in January and another in March — that threatened to derail the team’s playoff hopes. Each time, Ruff and company righted the ship and the Stars emerged a better team from the adversity.
Given what the team accomplished last season and the additions made this summer, the Stars have become a trendy pick in the Western Conference. Many pundits have called Dallas the most improved team in the NHL over the summer. However, there is one area where the Stars have not made any significant additions, and it’s in the same area that was exposed as the team’s weakest link in the playoffs: the starting blueline.
The Stars incumbent blueline of Brenden Dillon, Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Jordie Benn, Sergei Gonchar and Kevin Connauton is not horrible. There is some good speed and a bit of offensive pop. They are all serviceable players in at least one facet of the game. Dillon is an emerging young team leader and shutdown defenseman.
Nevertheless, no one would call Dallas’ blueline group an elite or Stanley Cup caliber unit, especially in comparison to the top clubs in the Western Conference. The collective group is currently a bit deficient in both the physical and coverage aspects of the game as well as a little undersized. The injury and subsequent trade last season of longtime blueline backbone Stephane Robidas also created a void that has yet to be filled.
Unfortunately, in today’s NHL, upgrading the blueline through trade or free agency is very tough to do. Trade prices on proven veterans are greatly inflated. Teams leaguewide also tend to lock up their impending unrestricted free agents in long-term deals before they hit the open market. Those who do hit the UFA market typically command greatly inflated contracts both in term and salary.
More and more, the NHL teams that assemble formidable bluelines must do so from within via astute drafting and patient development. To his credit, Nill has made a commitment to that process. The Stars have a good group of defensive prospects at the American Hockey League level with the Calder Cup winning Texas Stars. Nill has resisted the temptation of trading prospects for short-term help.
However, the big question right now is whether the Stars’ defense prospects are ready to move up to the NHL level on more than a fill-in basis. If Dallas is to go further than it did last season, it will need at least one or two of its prospect defensemen to step up as regular NHL contributors over the course of the 2014-15 season.
In the short term, Patrik Nemeth might be the first player ready to step up. The big-framed defensive defenseman acquitted himself well in eight regular season games and five playoff appearances with the big club last season. Basically a younger, healthier clone of former Stars defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, the 22-year-old Nemeth has the potential to bring some size, muscle and shot-blocking prowess to the Dallas lineup. He makes an adequate first pass but is mostly a no-frills defensive defenseman.
Former first-round pick Jamie Oleksiak has rapidly emerged as a force the AHL level with the Texas Stars but the 6-foot-7, 241-pound defenseman has struggled mightily — to the point of looking overwhelmed — in many of the 23 NHL games he’s played over the last two seasons. The 21-year-old did not look NHL-ready in his seven NHL appearances last season, looking indecisive and mistake prone in relatively limited ice time. Nevertheless, he still appears to have the highest long-range upside of the Dallas defense prospects.
Twenty-three-old Jyrki Jokipakka showed solid puck-moving ability in NHL preseason action last year and went on to have a good all-around AHL rookie season in 2013-14. He became a mainstay on the Texas Stars blueline. Jokipakka has good mobility and is fairly reliable in most facets of the game but he is neither big nor physical.
Twenty-two year old John Klingberg is considered to have NHL upside and is coming off a breakout season in Sweden for Frölunda. He has mobility, puck skills and two-way upside. However, Klingberg only has three games worth of AHL experience and may need more time to adapt his game to the demands of the North American style of play.
The Stars also have 24-year-old Cameron Gaunce in the system. Although generally not considered to have top-four upside at the NHL level, the former Avalanche defenseman has been a strong contributor for the Texas Stars and filled in adequately for nine games with the big club last season.
If Oleksiak is ready to take the next step in his development in 2014-15, the Stars blueline picture will become brighter. That’s especially true if Nemeth is able to emerge in the sort of role that Grossmann used to play for the team (a role that has not been adequately filled since his trade to Philadelphia in Feb. 2012). The other youngsters also have some promise, especially Klingberg.
Nevertheless, it is probably asking too much for any rookie to take on a such a big burden that he dramatically upgrades Dallas’ defense next season. In the immediate future, the team is probably going to have to continue with the committee approach it has featured in recent years.
This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.