Regular readers of this writer will know he had/has a deep belief in the Dallas Stars’ lineup this season.
And like, Stars fans, he’s ridden a roller-coaster with the team after it overcame a stale start to the year and battled its way into playoff contention, where they are today. Dallas currently occupies the second wild card slot in the Western Conference, and they’re just one point ahead of Edmonton, with two games in hand on the Oilers.
Every game matters for them, and they’re responding well to the challenge, but the Stars absorbed a major blow Thursday with the announcement star defenseman Miro Heiskanen was sidelined indefinitely with a case of mononucleosis. Heiskanen has averaged a team-best 24:43 of ice time this season, and he makes life easier on his teammates with his all-around elite game. His absence will be felt. There is no replacing what the 22-year-old Finn brings to the rink every night. But the hole he leaves in the lineup may change Dallas’ approach to the March 21 NHL trade deadline.
Consider: many analysts were of the belief Stars GM Jim Nill would be trading defenseman John Klingberg by or before the deadline. The soon-to-be-unrestricted-free-agent has made it clear he’s not thrilled with the way a contract extension was being negotiated, and the NHL’s salary cap crunch in the coming seasons probably left no room for Klingberg to get a raise anywhere near Heiskanen’s current $8.45-million salary. It felt like a fait accompli that Klingberg would be moved, regardless of how good Dallas’ post-season hopes were looking.
But now, with Heiskanen out of the lineup, does it make sense for the Stars to move Klingberg? He’s averaged 22:01 this season, and if Dallas intends to make the playoffs, maybe head coach Rick Bowness decides to lean more on Klingberg, view Klingberg as the type of upper-tier trade deadline acquisition a playoff-hungry team like the Stars would need for a post-season push, and hope Heiskanen recovers in time for the playoffs to restore their superior depth in the back end.
Otherwise, what other options does Dallas really have? Bowness could increase ice time not only for Klingberg, but for veterans Esa Lindell and Ryan Suter, but both of them are already playing big minutes. Do you want to trade Klingberg and hope Suter and Lindell don’t run out of gas by the time the playoffs arrive? Or do you want to give more shifts to the Stars’ relatively unproven bottom three defensemen (Jani Hakanpaa, Thomas Harley and Joel Hanley)? Coaches almost always are going to turn to experienced players, so we can expect Bowness to ride his veterans.
If any team can deal with an injury to a key blueliner, it’s the Stars. They’ve got one of the league’s deeper defense groups, and a stellar young goaltender in Jake Oettinger. Nill may yet choose to deal away backup goalie Braden Holtby, and perhaps add some depth to their ‘D’ in any trade for him. But in the short-term, Bowness is going to be asked to make lemonade out of Thursday’s lemon of an announcement. Heiskanen brings so much calm to their game, and without him, the Stars may become a more scrambly team that asks more of Oettinger.
It’s generally true that, if for any reason an NHL team loses one of its best, if not its very best players, it cannot fully recover to the point it wins playoff series. You need your best players to be your best players, and right now, the Stars are going to have to live without one of their best players. But at the very least, they may wind up leaning on Klingberg for one last stretch before he moves on this coming off-season.
They’ll also be praying Heiskanen becomes well as soon as possible. There’s no set date for his return, and opposing teams will know what had been a strength for Dallas to this point in the year is now notably weaker. The challenge is clear, and it’s up to Stars players to persuade Nill to keep them together, Klingberg included, for a serious playoff run.