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'Underdog' defensemen proving they fit just fine in NHL

The Stars' band of AHL call-ups has earned the confidence and belief of their teammates and coaches

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- I've always loved the Island of Misfit Toys.

The concept from the animated Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was both heart-breaking and heartwarming all at the same time. The fact that these toys were made wrong and rejected was so sad. A water pistol that shoots … jelly? A bird that doesn't fly … it swims? A cowboy that rides … an ostrich?

It was all so absurd, and yet all they wanted to do was fit in and make a kid happy at Christmas, which is exactly what they did in the end. It was a genius angle to a great story.

And it's kind of appropriate right now for the Stars. They are the Island of Misfit Defensemen, and nobody is really upset about it. These strangers have found a home on the Stars, and they are making a lot of people happy right now.

"We've got a lot of callups here, and we're a bunch of underdogs, to be honest," said Gavin Bayreuther. "And we're playing our hearts out."

Video: DAL@CGY: Bayreuther pots wrist shot through traffic

Think about it.

Joel Hanley is a 27-year-old AHL veteran who played his 31st NHL game Wednesday. He was signed as a free agent by the Texas Stars in the summer and was probably 10th on the depth chart when everyone was healthy.

Taylor Fedun wasn't even on the depth chart. He was acquired from Buffalo in November after the injuries started to pile up on the blueline. The 30-year-old has played 50 NHL games.

Yet, there Fedun was Wednesday, playing 15 minutes on defense, including 3:09 on the penalty kill against some of the best players in the world.

He was joined by Roman Polak, a veteran who was probably sixth or seventh on the depth chart when the team was healthy. Polak played 23:09 Wednesday, including 5:07 shorthanded.

Video: OTT@DAL: Fedun goes upstairs off Shore's perfect feed

Bayreuther is one player who was on the radar. The 24-year-old is in his second full season with the organization and helped the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup Finals last spring, so his ability to push past Julius Honka has been surprising but not shocking.

In eight games this season, Bayreuther has two goals and two assists while averaging 20:20 in ice time. He has grabbed a spot on the first power play unit, where he assisted on Jamie Benn's goal Wednesday, and also had the game-tying goal against the Flames.

"I loved the fact that he was there," Montgomery said. "A lot of defensemen in his situation probably would have backed off and not been at the top of the circles to get that puck and put it on net."

His "situation" is he wasn't on the NHL roster last year, and still is learning on the fly. Of the six defensemen in the lineup right now, only Esa Lindell, 24, played for Dallas in 2017-18. Miro Heiskanen, 19, was the third overall pick for the Stars in 2017, but he is a rookie this season averaging 22:57 a game.

It's a bit overwhelming when you look at everything that is happening to the Stars' defense.

Video: ANA@DAL: Polak flips backhander past Gibson

"Hanley, Fedun, Gavin, the minutes that Roman is playing, the minutes that a 19-year-old is playing," Montgomery said. "They're all raising their level, and it's been inspiring to all of us."

Polak said he is embracing the opportunity and enjoying the fact he has a greater impact on the game. He is matter-of-fact in how he approaches the job, and that seems to help keep the inexperienced players calm.

"It's what I usually do, just play defense, I make sure the other guys are playing offense more than me. I'm just doing my job," Polak said, adding that the frantic finishes have been a blast. "I think it's fun. You get more challenged, I like those games, it's like a playoff game and every little thing matters."

That's the funny part of this stretch.

Dallas went to overtime before losing 1-0 in Edmonton on Tuesday. The Stars went to overtime before winning 4-3 at Calgary on Wednesday. On Saturday, they had a 2-1 lead late against Colorado before losing 3-2. These really are like playoff games, and they should help not only the inexperienced players who are witnessing this kind of pressure for the first time, but also the veterans who still have played just three playoff series in the past five seasons.

Video: OTT@DAL: Heiskanen tallies on redirected wrister

To be clear, the Stars are hardly world-beaters with this group, and Montgomery said Wednesday parts of the game were like a "Chinese Fire Drill" with goalie Anton Khudobin cleaning up a lot of messes. But when the team is able to collect three standings points in the first three games of a tough road trip, there is progress being made.

"When you have that belief and that confidence, you're in a good spot," said center Tyler Seguin. "You could have excuses with back-to-back and half our D, but we're playing hard. You're not going to win every night, but you've got to keep it going. There's a lot of good things right now."

Because there is going to come a time when people start getting healthy. Goalie Ben Bishop is expected to return to the lineup Saturday against Vancouver after missing five games with a lower-body injury. John Klingberg could be back around Christmas from a broken hand. Defensemen Marc Methot (knee), Stephen Johns (neck/headaches), and Connor Carrick (foot) also are hoping to return at some point.

But until that time comes, the Stars are happily surviving on the Island of Misfit Toys.

"They're saving our season," Montgomery said. "There's no other way to say it."

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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