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Defensive shuffle requiring daily attention from Stars

Determining who plays and who sits each game can be a tough challenge for Dallas' coaching staff

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

MONTREAL -- Rick Bowness is an interesting blend of a hardened old-school coach and a former player who understands the emotions of the profession.

So it is that as he juggles eight healthy NHL defensemen, he is both matter-of-fact and caring all at the same time.

 

[GAME DAY GUIDE: Everything you need to know for Stars at Canadiens]

 

Since the return of Stephen Johns from a 22-month injury hiatus Jan. 18, the Stars have to typically scratch at least one veteran defenseman and often times two. The team has sent Taylor Fedun on a conditioning assignment to the AHL, but the 31-year-old will be back soon and will likely carry on a run of healthy scratches that reached 10 games before he left. In the meantime, Roman Polak, 33, and Andrej Sekera, 33, are rotating healthy scratches, and Bowness has to inform each if he is going to be in the game or not.

"These guys are heart-and-soul players and they give you everything they've got every day," Bowness said. "It's hard for a coach to go to them and say, 'You're not playing tonight.' It's hard for them to accept it. They're men, they're professionals. They deal with it as best they can."

Polak played his 800th career game Thursday in Toronto and said he is dealing with the challenges every day. He said he has a ton of respect for Sekera, and both players are simply trying to help the team win.

"It is hard. It is hard for me and Reggie (Sekera), but it is what it is," he said. "We're the same age, so I know that they are thinking that sometimes less is more and maybe this will help keep us fresh. I don't see anything bad about it, so I just get myself ready every day like I'm going to play, and then I react to what they tell me."

Sekera also understands the thinking that by giving some games off and allowing players to rest that they might be able to be more fresh at the end of the season. But he said he actually feels better when he is playing every game.

Video: Bowness likes where Stars' team game is at right now

"I think you're better when you're in the rhythm, but that's just me," he said. "So then you have to find a way to keep the rhythm going and make sure you are ready to go."

The team has had several back-to-back game situations, so that means both veterans are in the lineup for one of the two games, and then the time spent sitting is limited. Johns had some healthy scratches in his return, but he seems to be getting back into the flow after missing a season and a half of hockey, so he is expected to get more ice time now.

"He's a much better player than I realized," Bowness said of Johns. "He's been very impactful for this team and he shows what a big addition he's going to be for this team."

In a 3-2 win over Toronto Thursday, Johns played a season-high 19:48, as he and Miro Heiskanen are becoming a regular combination on the second defense pair. With Jamie Oleksiak locking down the fifth spot, the organization seems excited about the fact it can trot out five defensemen under 30 and seem to have a core of blueliners that could be steady for several seasons.

"If you go back to last year in the playoffs, and we have (Johns) and (Oleksiak) in there, it could have been a whole different program," Bowness said of a seven-game series loss in the second round to St. Louis.

That said, Sekera, Polak and Fedun are also keys to making the Stars one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Sekera is left-handed and more of a skilled defenseman, Polak is right-handed and more of a physical defenseman, so each offers different elements. Fedun is skilled and right-handed, so he also is an important part of the mix.

Bowness said it has been difficult to tell Fedun he is getting scratched. The interim head coach wants every player to be a part of the mix, but he also has to make difficult decisions each game.


"He's handled a very tough situation very well so we give him full marks for that," Bowness said before Fedun went on his conditioning assignment. "He's anxious to play. The longer you go without playing, it becomes a concern, no doubt about that."

Bowness said he understands the good side of the equation. If the Stars do get an injury, they have a top-notch defenseman ready to step in. That can be important in the final 25 games, and it can be especially important in the playoffs.

"From an organizational standpoint, it's a good thing, we have eight pros, eight NHLers." Bowness said. "We're fortunate. It's a tough situation, but a lot of teams would love to have this situation."

And the veterans understand that. Sekera signed as a free agent in the summer, and said that one of the most appealing aspects of the Stars is that he believes this team is ready for a good playoff run.

"That's why I chose Dallas. I saw the potential here and I'm excited," he said. "There are things you can control and things you can't, and you just have to take care of your end and be ready when they call you."

Of course, that doesn't make it any easier when you don't get the call.

"I think when any coach tells you you're not playing, it's hard to sugarcoat that one," Bowness said. "You have to look them in the eye, you've got to deal with it."

 

Stars (33-19-5) at Canadiens (27-25-7)

Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: FOX Sports Southwest

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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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