Before the season began, Dallas Stars management felt that the team had 10 to 11 NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster. There were a couple more who were pegged to be ready within the next year or two, giving the Stars tremendous young depth at defense. The training camp battle on the blue line was the deepest Dallas had seen in quite some time. As the season started playing out, a combination of contract specifics and a philosophy toward patience with prospects kept some blue chip prospects in the minors, and some quality defensemen watching from the press box.
As much as the Stars may have had different ideas of how things would play out, their hand became somewhat forced early. While depth is essential over the course of time, when things are going well there's no need to make a switch for the sake of making a switch. So, while the Stars shot out to a record-setting pace, it remained business as usual on the back end. That meant more AHL arenas for some very good defensemen, and more game day bag skates for a couple others in the NHL.
That doesn't mean that confidence wavered in the guys not playing. It's easy to confuse that part, but it's important to not. The Stars were simply going with what was working instead of rocking the boat. It's hard to argue with that when you've got one of the top records in the NHL from wire to wire.
But there's one other major factor that played into how the Stars crowded defense was used, or not used, this season.
You can't predict when they'll happen, to whom they'll happen, or how severe they'll be when they do. You can only try to be as prepared as possible when they strike. The fact is that with such a surplus of bodies on defense, injuries were going to help sort out the numbers. But that didn't happen.
It's hardly a bad thing, but the Stars stayed incredibly healthy on the blue line this year. Until last week Alex Goligoski, John Klingberg, and Johnny Oduya had played every single game this season. Jason Demers missed two games with a suspension and a handful more to a small injury. Jordie Benn missed just one game before January.
The Dallas defense became one of the great ironies of the season. The club that felt they had almost two full NHL units couldn't get a look past their top six. Again, it was for all the right reasons. Success and health are a never a burden, but Dallas probably expected to get a more detailed look at the entirety of their defensive corps than they have up to this point.
But that's about to change in a hurry.
In the last week-plus, the defense that was rooted for most of the season has been tossed on its head. At the trade deadline, Jyrki Jokipakka was traded for veteran Kris Russell. A few days later Jordie Benn was sidelined with a nagging injury. The night after that announcement Klingberg got hurt just minutes into a game. And on Tuesday, the most severe blow came when Demers was injured for what could be the remainder of the season.
In the first four months of the season, the six Stars defensemen who played on opening were in the lineup for 279 of 306 man-games. That's over 91% of the time. Now at the most important time of the season, in a startling contrast, four of those six are out of the lineup. On Friday night, when the defending Stanley Cup Champions come to town with first place on the line, the Stars are expected to ice a defense consisting of two players who have played every game, two who have been healthy scratches the majority of the year, one who will be playing his fifth game with the Stars, and another making his NHL debut.
Yet, amidst all the absences, it's important to remember the feeling surrounding the defense in September. Flash back to the training camp battle. There was a ton of excitement about the young defensemen and not just what they could do in the future, but also this year. What would Jamie Oleksiak do if given consistent minutes? Could Patrik Nemeth return to his 2014 form after losing most of last season to injury? The circumstances laid out earlier have largely kept us from finding out those answers. What we've seen this season has come in spot-shift duty. But now the spotlight is all theirs. Nemeth has been consistently eating minutes for the last month, pretty much taking over Jokipakka's spot before the trade. He will take on an even larger role now. Oleksiak, meanwhile, appears poised to get his long-awaited 'toss you into the deep end and show us you can swim' moment. In a week he's gone from a player with three NHL games since Christmas, to a seven-minute guy, to a man with relative seniority on the blue line. He has only played consecutive games five times all season. He's been pining for an opportunity. Here it is, center stage.
And what about that one player set to debut on Friday? He's probably the most intriguing of all. Stephen Johns is a name that the Stars hope will be a big part of their future defensive plans. Known to some as the other guy in the Patrick Sharp trade, Jim Nill contended time and time again that the summer blockbuster doesn't happen unless Johns was included. Johns is a big, rugged, right-handed defenseman whose NHL debut has been eagerly awaited. Heralded as a top-tier prospect, Johns was currently serving as the captain of the AHL Stars at the time of his Wednesday call-up. Under different circumstances, Johns would have likely been summoned much earlier, but again this season offered a different route for Dallas. His NHL debut already brings a ton of anticipation. That it is set to come Friday against the club who traded him to the Stars only adds another bone onto a mountain of which to feast.
As for the other pieces of the defensive unit, losing Demers is a huge blow. There's no way around it. He plays in both ends, he is right-handed, and has been a big part of the Stars ever since his arrival. His absence is a significant loss.
That said, it retroactively makes the Russell acquisition that much more important. Russell has slotted in nicely since joining the Stars and now will take on a bigger role. By effectively turning Jokipakka into the veteran Russell, the Stars still have four proven options at the top of their depth chart heading into the postseason. While Klingberg remains out for the time being, his injury is not expected to be long term. That means eventually he will reunite with Goligoski, Oduya, and Russell to give Lindy Ruff a solid quartet to lean on. That can then be rounded out as needed based on what the younger guys do with this opportunity.
At the start of the year, there were eyes on a lot of different names of Stars defensemen. Given how the season has played out, that focus has narrowed off a few of them. But at a time like this, it's worth revisiting how and why people were so excited about the prospects of their future.
Regardless of what happens in the coming schedule, the largest impact of the young defense still most likely lies down the road. That's the way it works in the Nill system. But for those who will take the ice this weekend in an enormous back-to-back slate, at least for right now, their time has finally arrived.
When you're trying to make your mark, all you want is a chance. This season hasn't gone the way some might have expected. In a lot of ways, that's been a positive for the Stars. But opportunity for a few players just knocked.
It may be six months since training camp, but we should still be very excited to see how they answer.
A very tough five-game home stand begins with two of the bigger games of the season on Friday and Saturday. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the Stars get ready for a pair of division rivals:
With all the offense on the Stars roster, it may be surprising to learn that Antoine Roussel leads the Stars with six game-winning goals this season. However, it's the manner in which those goals have been scored that is more noteworthy. Game-winning goals are defined as the goal scored that is one greater that the opponent's total. For example, if a team scores to increase their lead to 4-0, and the final score ends up 5-3, that fourth goal is the game-winner. That definition leads to many goals arbitrarily becoming game-winning goals regardless of their impact at the time of the goal. In Roussel's case, though, his goals have been incredibly pivotal and usually very clutch. All six of Roussel's game-winning goals have broken tie scores at the time. Additionally, five of the six came in the second half of the game, including four in the third period, three in the final six-and-a-half minutes, an two in the final 2:32. Notably, they all came in regulation. Furthermore, in each of those six games, the opponent has never scored a goal of their own after Roussel's tallies. Not all game-winning goals are appropriately defined, but this year Roussel's have been exactly that.
Since becoming teammates in Dallas, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn rank third and fifth in NHL goals, scoring 106 and 101, respectively. With those kinds of numbers, scoring slumps have been extremely rare. It's been even rarer to see both hit one at the same time. However, entering this weekend Benn has been held without a goal in his last seven games, and Seguin in his last six. The six games matches the longest stretch in three seasons playing together that both have been in the lineup without either scoring. In November-December 2013, the Stars went eight straight games without a goal from the two, but Seguin missed two games during that span.
The Stars enter this weekend part of a three-team dog pile at the top of the Central Division standings. Dallas and Chicago are tied with 88 points, while St. Louis is just one point back. All three teams have 14 games remaining. Of the Stars 14 games, only three are against the pair of teams they're battling with and two come in back-to-back form on Friday and Saturday night at American Airlines Center. After this weekend, there are only two more games this season that feature a head-to-head between any of the three teams. They are on March 22 when the Stars visit Chicago, and then on April 7, when St. Louis travels to play the Hawks. While the Stars, Hawks, and Blues remain the central figures in the race, the Nashville Predators earned a point on Wednesday for the 14th straight game and are only six points back of St. Louis and seven out of first place. Dallas plays Nashville two more times on March 29, and the season finale on April 9. This season the Stars are 2-1 vs. Chicago, 1-1-2 vs. St. Louis, and 2-1 vs. Nashville.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.