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A Steady Performer

Defenseman Esa Lindell putting together an excellent rookie season

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

Stars rookie defenseman Esa Lindell was on the move last week, switching from a location in the corner of the team's locker room to a middle spot along the wall.  

"Too tight over there," Lindell said of his old corner location, which is now occupied by forward Remi Elie.  

Told that his new location might make him more accessible for media interviews, Lindell paused and then smiled.

"Maybe I'll move back," he said.

Lindell can be shy around the media, but he's said a lot with his play this season, showing marked improvement since October. Lindell didn't play in nine of the Stars' first 19 games, sitting out seven as a healthy scratch and two games while in the AHL. Since his return to the lineup on Nov. 21, he's not just played in every game but has become a top-minute player for the Stars, ranking second on the team in ice time to John Klingberg.

"I think there has been improvement since the season started," Lindell said. "That is good."

Lindell, 22, has established himself as one of the top rookie defensemen in the league. He ranks third among first-year defensemen in ice time per game (21:34), is tied for third in goals (five), and ranks fifth in plus/minus (plus-seven).

Stars coach Lindy Ruff said once Lindell adjusted to the pace of the NHL game he began to flourish.

"He's made steady progress when it comes to defending and being involved in all aspects of the game, from our special teams to our five-on-five play," Ruff said. "He's the one guy who looks like he has really pushed through, and he's shown he can be a big-time player in the league."

There's nothing fancy about Lindell's game. He's the kind of guy you don't notice a lot of times, but he does a lot of little things right and quietly goes about his business.

"He's an incredibly strong young man. He's the strongest defenseman we have when it comes to battles, I'll just tell you that right now," said Ruff. "He's got one of the best sticks. We did a drill a couple of days ago in practice where I just told him to yell next, bring on the next guy because he was that good at the drill. You watch Esa practice, and it tells you a lot about the player."

As the season has moved along, Lindell has seen his role expand. He's been on the top defense pair with Klingberg since November. He's seen some time on the top power-play unit recently.

"I feel pretty good," Lindell said. "Of course, there are some small things I can improve all the time. I think the D zone playing is pretty good, but I think I've got a lot to improve in the O zone, get pucks to the net and make more plays there."

Lindell, a third-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, is in just his second season in North America after playing a couple of seasons in Finland's top league, where he was named the league's top defenseman and a First-Team All-Star in 2014-15.

The 22-year-old Lindell's father came over from Finland to see him play in the NHL for the first time recently. It wasn't when the Stars took dads along on the recent road trip to Florida and Washington. Lindell's dad spent two weeks in town during the Stars five-game homestand in February. In Finland, Lindell's dad, a supervisor at a candy company, and other family members have to get up at 3:30 a.m. to watch the Stars play a 7:30 p.m. game in Dallas.

"It was cool that he could be here. Hopefully, he liked it, seeing the games live," Lindell said. "His English isn't even close to what I've got now, but he seemed to work out here. It's been a while since he's seen me play. It must be fun for him."

 And, no doubt, Lindell's dad is proud as well.

As for the Stars, they are thrilled with what they've seen from the rookie defenseman. They had some high expectations for Lindell coming into the season, and while there have been some of the expected bumps along the way, he's turned into a key piece on the blue line.

"If you say he has exceeded expectations, we might have set them too low," Ruff said. "We thought he was going to be a really good player, and I think he's proven that. Wherever you want to put those expectations, he's been a steady performer throughout the whole year."

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