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Stars See Growth With Young Defense

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

There was plenty for Stars coach Lindy Ruff to digest from this past season, some good and some not so good. But he’s been pretty clear about what he saw as the biggest positive from the 2014-15 season.

“The thing that impressed me the most was our young defensemen,” Ruff said. “They're way ahead of where I thought they would be.”

It wasn’t just that the young defensemen gained valuable playing experience and improved over the course of the season. It was the contributions they made as the Stars got their game in order down the stretch and stayed in the race for a playoff spot until the final week of the season.

“I said that three months ago, that it’s my obligation to get these young players in the right place, and that is probably the thing that impressed me most,” Ruff said. “It was probably the biggest difference-maker in our game, the way they played. It made us more mobile, it made us better defenders, it changed the complexion of our team, and it is the one thing that put a smile on my face.”

Rookie defensemen John Klingberg (65 games), Jyrki Jokipakka (51 games) and Patrik Nemeth (22 games) combined for 138 games this season. No team in the NHL had rookie defensemen log more games than the Stars. Minnesota was second with 98 combined games from Christian Folin and Matt Dumba. The 138 combined games by rookie defensemen was the most for the Stars since Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossmann and Mark Fistric combined for 177 in 2007-08.

You also can throw in the 36 games played this season by 22-year-old Jamie Oleksiak, who didn’t qualify for rookie status. Whether they were rookies or not, the Stars saw young defensemen log a lot of ice time this season. And they played well, especially late in the season.

“The changes we made in defense, the young defenseman and how well they played when [Trevor] Daley was out,” Ruff said. Sometimes we had three young guys in there, probably one of the least experienced defense and how well we were able to go through a stretch of games and stay competitive and move up the ladder. For me, [the play of] Klingberg, Jokipakka, Oleksiak, I think that’s the thing for me that we’ve moved forward the most in.”

The Stars defense underwent big changes over the course of the season. Dallas opened 2014-15 with Daley, Nemeth, Oleksiak, Alex Goligoski, Jordie Benn, Kevin Connauton and Brenden Dillon on the active roster and Sergei Gonchar on injured reserve. But it didn’t take long for things to start changing.

Five games into the season, Nemeth was lost for several months when he was cut on the arm by a skate. A month later, the Stars recalled Klingberg to give them a much needed right-handed shot. Two days after that, Gonchar was traded to Montreal. A week after that, Connauton was gone via waivers to Columbus and the Stars recalled Jokipakka from the AHL. And three days later, the Stars acquired Jason Demers, another right-shot, from San Jose in exchange for Dillon.

Klingberg, a fifth-round pick in 2010, made an immediate impact, registering eight points in his first eight games. By the time Klingberg was finished, he led all NHL rookie defensemen in scoring with 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 65 games. He ranked third among first-year defensemen with 21:50 of ice time per game.

“I had a good start when I got the call up here, and I got a lot of good help from my teammates,” Klingberg said. “I didn’t expect myself to score that many points, but that’s just a bonus. I just wanted to get going here with the team.”

There were some ups and downs for Klingberg, but by the end of the season there was more to his game than just the points.

“There was a lot of success right off the bat, and it became too much of a high-risk game. We tried to get him to play the game the right way, and he did a great job,” Ruff said. “Here’s a guy who has played against the top lines and his last 20 games he might be as good as any defensemen in the league when it comes to defending.”

Klingberg’s play put him in the conversation for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top rookie. It earned him a seven-year, $29.75 million contract extension. And it drew rave reviews from his teammates.

“Amazing,” Goligoski said. “You don’t see that almost ever, a guy comes in and makes a splash like he has and be as good as he has consistently. It just tells you that he is going to be a great player. He was awesome.”

Jokipakka and Oleksiak split time and shuffled between the NHL and AHL before Jokipakka finally stuck after getting recalled in early February. Jokipakka, a seventh-round pick in 2011, played 32 of the final 33 games, totaling 51 for the season. The 23-year-old Finn registered ten assists while averaging 16 minutes of ice time per game.

“Jokipakka’s a smart player. He always wants to make the right play and guys like that are easy to play with. He does everything right,” Goligoski said. “He’s an overall good defenseman, good puck mover and great defensively. As quiet as he is off the ice, he talks a lot on the ice.”

Nemeth returned from his injury in early March and had some ups and downs after being out for so long. But the Stars know that Nemeth, a second-round pick out of Sweden in 2010, can bring a steady defensive presence to the blue line when up to speed.

“He’s so solid,” said Goligoski. “Hard to play against. Guys don’t like playing against him in practice.”

Ruff said the size Jokipakka (6-3/210 pounds) and Nemeth (6-3/230 pounds) brought to the Stars backend was a key in helping the defense improve down the stretch. Oleksiak (6-7/250 pounds) adds size as well. Mix in Klingberg’s skill and offensive ability, and the Stars like what they have in their young defensive group.

“That’s what excites us; we have different pieces,” Stars GM Jim Nill said. “Some guys are bigger, more physical, shut down guys, which you have to have. Some are more puck movers, and some are more offensive flair. That’s why we think we have a good combination of all those type of players.”

The Stars played 49 games this season with at least two rookie defensemen in the lineup, and there were 17 games with all three rookies patrolling the blue line. It was a chance for the young defensemen to grow together and push each other. There was one game – a road win in Philadelphia March 10 – where the three rookies and Oleksiak were all in the lineup.

“We’re all going through the same things,” Nemeth said. “A little bit up and down at times, maybe a little more than you want to. But to have more guys go through the same thing, they all know how it feels, and they are all really good guys. It helps.”

Added Klingberg: “We help each other too. When you see another guy playing a good game, you want to play a good game too. I think it’s been helping all of us.”

And in Ruff’s eyes, that all helped the Stars defense become better.

“I think that when you look at the defense that we were using in the last three, four months versus what we started with, the numbers say that defense was a lot better,” Ruff said. “The shot differential was going the right direction. The chance differential was going the right direction.”

And the Stars see that as a sign that the defense is heading in the right direction.

“To be an elite team is where we want to be and to be an elite team you have to have good defense. We think we are building that,” Nill said. “As we got into January, February and March, the young defensemen were a big part of our success.”

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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