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Stars Confident in Defense

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars made some key additions to their forward group this offseason and they made some moves on the goaltending front, but they left the defense group intact for the most part. That’s left some people concerned about the defense, but Stars owner Tom Gaglardi said he isn’t one of them.

“I think if you look at our team you’d say our defense - everybody seems to say it, and you read about it – is that it needs to get stronger, but it’s not a position you can easily strengthen,” Gaglardi said. “And if you look at what we have in terms of prospects it is going to get better just by itself. We’ve got four guys in Texas that are knocking on the door and are going to push guys to be better and are going to want to play at the NHL level. So, we are in great shape.

“I read things that Dallas needs a No. 1 defenseman but there are only eight of those guys in the entire NHL, and they are never traded. We’ve done a good job; we’ve set ourselves up for the future with our prospects. I think you saw that the way [Trevor] Daley and [Alex] Goligoski played in the second half of the season, I think for people to criticize our defense is flat wrong.”

Gaglardi isn’t alone in having faith in the Stars’ defense. GM Jim Nill and head coach Lindy Ruff both like where the defense sits coming into this season.

“I have confidence,” Ruff said in an interview with Stars radio host Bruce LeVine in an interview on The Ticket. “I think we made great strides with the defensemen we had.”

“I’m excited about our defense,” Nill said. “We kind of had two different defenses during the season. There was the early-season defense that we didn’t know who was going to play with who, how they were going to match up, how it was going to fit. And then you had the defense from January on that played very well. We know now what that fit is. We’re excited.”

The only move that the Stars made in the offseason on defense was to buy out the final year of Aaron Rome’s contract. Rome spent two years with the Stars, but was slowed by injuries and played just 52 games, including 25 last season. Nill made no other moves, deciding to stick with what he had and, for now, will rely on youth to push for playing time.

That leaves the Stars with six NHL defensemen on the roster at this point. Daley, Goligoski, Jordie Benn, Sergei Gonchar and Kevin Connauton all are under contract, and Brenden Dillon is a restricted free agent. There is also Patrik Nemeth, the second round pick from 2010, who finished the season in Dallas and played well.

And Nill said he believes things set up well moving forward, especially with how things fell together over the second half of last season.

“Daley and Goligoski, they played outstanding for us the last half of the season,” said Nill. “They had a great chemistry that we found there that we never knew we had.”

Both Nill and head coach Lindy Ruff said the play of Daley and Goligoski helped spur the turnaround of the defense. Those two were paired together in November and took off in January after Daley returned from an ankle injury. Goligoski had 28 points (4 goals, 24 assists) and a plus-11 rating over his final 40 games. Daley had 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) and a plus-11 rating over his final 40 games.

“Both guys started to wrap their arms around the number of minutes they were playing,” Ruff said. “Part of that was everybody getting to understand each other. players understanding what I wanted and me understanding what and where was the best-possible situations to play these guys, where their compete level was and where we had to push them. I thought we got our team to a pretty good level on the defensive side. The goal next year is to take it a step further.”

The Stars see room for growth in some of their defensemen. Jordie Benn took big steps last season, coming in as a guy battling for regular playing time and working his way into a top four role. He played in 78 games last season and averaged just over 19 minutes per game. Dillon is only 23 and already has 129 NHL games under his belt. He ranked third on the team in ice time last season at 21:05 per game. Connauton, who is 24, logged 36 games last season in his first NHL campaign. Nemeth, 22, suited up for eight regular season games and then five more in the playoffs. He then went back to the AHL, where he helped the Texas Stars win the Calder Cup, scoring the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the St. John’s IceCaps.

“We’ve got the young defense. You start looking at Dillon and Benn and those type of guys, Nemeth that we have coming in. We’ve got some good young kids; they’re going to be even better than last year,” said Nill. “We’ve got Sergei Gonchar that gives us that veteran presence and then we’ve got three or four young kids that are knocking on the door from the Calder Cup championship down in Texas. We think we’ve got lots of different options. We know they’re all going to get better. The young kids are all getting better. We think we’re going to be just fine.”

Making the push

When it comes to young defensemen making a push for the NHL roster, 22-year-old Patrik Nemeth appears to be at the top of the list after his strong showing with Dallas and Texas of the AHL. The defensive-minded Swede, a second round pick in 2010, has battled injuries his first two seasons in North America, but he’s played well when healthy.

“Patrik really had a strong season. He showed it at the end in Dallas that he is right around the NHL,” said Stars assistant GM Les Jackson. “He’s made huge steps. He’s been healthy the last little while. He has matured in a lot of different ways. He’s taken a leadership role down there. He carries heavy minutes, and he does a lot of good things.”

While Nemeth put himself in a good position for 2014-15 with his play late last season, the Stars have several other young defensemen pushing for NHL time. Among them is John Klingberg, an offensive defenseman who was a fifth round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. Klingberg, a much-needed right-shot on a blue line filled with lefties, played in the Swedish Hockey League last season, tying for fifth among defensemen in scoring with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 50 games. Klingberg, who turns 22 this month, ranked 10th in the league in playing time at 21:47 per game.

“He had a really good season. We’re going to turn him pro either with us or in Austin, it depends on where he finds his level,” said Jackson. “He’s a very good player. I have a sense that he is not very far from the NHL. We’ll have to figure that out when he comes over.”

Jamie Oleksiak, the Stars’ first round pick (14th overall) in 2011, is knocking on the door as well. The 6-7, 250-pound Oleksiak wrapped up his second professional season in 2013-14, playing primarily with the Texas Stars of the AHL. The 21-year-old also played seven games with Dallas and has played 23 NHL games over the past two seasons.

“He had his bumps in the road this year, but he is improving. I think in the last 30-35 games he really started to separate himself,” said Jackson. “In the [Calder Cup] playoffs he had some dominant games. I think for a young guy he is on track. He’s made some real good steps. He’s had some bumps, but that is all part of the process of growing and learning. I’d say he is doing very well and making huge steps towards the NHL.”

Another young defenseman vying for NHL time is Jyrki Jokipakka, who turns 23 later this month. The seventh round pick out of Finland in 2011 made his North American debut last season, registering 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists) in 68 games with the Texas Stars. A smart, puck moving defenseman, Jokipakka played with Nemeth during Texas’ Calder Cup run.

“Jokipakka had a tremendous season. He played exceptionally well,” said Jackson. “For a first-year player coming from Finland, he has adjusted well and has played big minutes. He has NHL written all over him. It’s just a matter of experience and maturing, but I think he is going to push rather quickly.”

Also providing depth defensively is Cameron Gaunce, a defensive defenseman who played in Texas last season and played nine games with Dallas, providing some solid relief when the NHL club was hit hard by injuries on the blue line.

“We know we’ve got some good help,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “We got some good help late in the year with Nemeth. There might be another young guy that is going to push through, but we’ve got several defensemen there that are on the verge of becoming NHL defensemen.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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