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Stars face challenges with eight defensemen on roster

With Johns healthy and Heiskanen out of concussion protocol, Dallas will have tough decisions to make

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Stephen Johns has completed his one-week self-imposed "training camp" and Miro Heiskanen is out of concussion protocol, meaning the Stars have eight healthy defensemen right now and could have some intriguing decisions going forward.

The Stars had their first practice after the bye week and All-Star break on Sunday and will play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday at home. Interim coach Rick Bowness said being able to juggle his eight healthy defensemen will be a challenge.

"We're running into a very busy and heavy part of our schedule, so we're fortunate to be in the position that we have eight NHL defensemen," Bowness said. "That being said, they all want to play and there are only six spots, so it's going to be tough on the guys who are asked to sit out for the team. But they also know they are all going to play -- 15 games in 29 days in February, and two tough games this week.

 

[GAME DAY GUIDE: What you need to know before Stars face Lightning]

 

"So again, we're fortunate to have eight healthy and good NHL defensemen, and they're all going to play."

Johns has missed a year and a half with post-traumatic headaches. He played two games in the AHL and then played one NHL game, a 7-0 loss at Minnesota. He decided to stay in Frisco during the break and skated on his own.

"There's going to be an adjustment period to getting my game back to where it was," Johns said after playing 18:29 with two shots on goal and two hits. "Obviously, there's a big adjustment to the speed and size of the players because I haven't played in such a long time. There's going to be an adjustment to pretty much everything you can think of."

Video: DAL@MIN: Johns on playing in first game in 22 months

Johns said he compared it to coming out at the beginning of the season and finding his rhythm, but said he believes he can adapt quickly. He said he felt he was on top of his game when he was last a regular at the end of the 2017-18 season, and that he is pushing to return to that level.

"Getting back to that point is going to take a little time, but hopefully not too long," he said.

Asked how he felt about Johns' return in the game against Minnesota, Bowness said it was about as expected.

"He's only played three games, two in the minors and one up here, so he's where we thought he would be," Bowness said.

The Stars on Sunday ran practice pairings that had John Klingberg with Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen with Roman Polak, Jamie Oleksiak with Johns, and Andrej Sekera with Taylor Fedun. Bowness said not to read anything into those pairs.

"We ran eight D today, the pairings weren't a priority," he said. "They've all got to play with each other, different pairings all of the time, because that's going to happen."

Video: DAL@WPG: Heiskanen tallies after outstanding effort

There is a chance that Bowness might go with the top trio of Klingberg, Lindell and Heiskanen as regulars and then rotate the others in and out. Then again, if the coaching staff finds the right mix, they could stick with some pairs. Whatever happens, Bowness said there will probably be some players unhappy they are sitting out.

"There's going to be nights when they're upset they're not playing, but there's nothing we can do about that," he said. "We'll make decisions on what's best for the team knowing that all eight are capable."

With all eight healthy, they offer a mix of size and right/left shot. That could allow the Stars to be even better on defense. That said, they are first in the NHL in team defense at 2.46 goals against per game and 27th in scoring at 2.56, so their biggest need is to improve the offense.

"Our issues are consistency," Bowness said when asked about the lack of scoring. "We are a hard working team, we are a good defensive team, and we can win games 2-1. But it gets very frustrating when you lose games 2-1. We know where we need to improve."

Bowness said the coaching staff spent a great deal of the break looking at ways to increase the goal-scoring. Dallas currently sits third in the Western Conference with 58 standings points, but are just four points ahead of ninth place, which would miss the playoffs if they started today.

"We're one of 10 teams fighting for a playoff spot, so we're not in a comfortable position to take a week off," Bowness said of the coaching staff. "We all did a lot of video work."

 

Stars (27-17-4) vs. Lightning (29-15-5)

Monday, 7 p.m. CT

Where: American Airlines Center

TV: NBCSN

Radio: The Ticket 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Tampa Bay Lightning when they return home to American Airlines Center on Monday at 7 p.m. Get your tickets now!

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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