Wednesday, September 28, 2022 Sep 28, 2022
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Hockey

Nils Lundkvist Could be Just What the Stars Need. He’ll Also Tell us Plenty About Their Coach.

The newly acquired defenseman could one day replace John Klingberg. How Pete DeBoer deploys him could say a lot about when.
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The Stars paid a hefty price for the 22-year-old defenseman. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Predicting lineups is a fool’s errand. Even when you’ve watched a team for a few months, most coaches still surprise you, still feel the need to shake things up. John Klingberg played with Ryan Suter last year right up until he didn’t, and the Stars’ prize free-agent-to-be wound down his walk year back with old stalwart Esa Lindell, then Thomas Harley, and even six or seven games with Joel Hanley as his partner. In other words, it’s safe to say Rick Bowness wasn’t exactly showcasing Klingberg on behalf of Jim Nill. Coaches will play who they play, and good luck guessing when or why they’ll do it. 

And good luck guessing what Jim Nill will do, come to that. The Stars’ decision to trade a 2023 conditional first-round pick plus a conditional 2025 fourth-rounder to the New York Rangers for defenseman Nils Lundkvist made us all sit up and take notice on a too-hot September evening, which says something when it comes to Dallas Stars hockey. 

Perhaps this means that Colin Miller’s “booming slapshot” isn’t going to be the sole solution to the second power-play unit after all; or perhaps the Lunkvist trade even means that Jani Hakanpää isn’t going to be the large security blanket that players with his body type so often tend to be. Perhaps this just means Klingberg paid another Swedish defenseman to perform some sort of Freaky Friday thing in order to avoid having to move to California. (Admittedly, one of those three is impossible, as coaches in all professional sports will never, ever stop loving Really Big Dudes Being Big. Still, one can dream.) 

Whatever the answer ends up being, this deal forces us to rethink what we expected of the 2022-2023 Dallas Stars. For starters,  Jim Nill trading a first-round pick—even a conditional one—is shocking. Yes, you can make the Tyler Seguin comparisons, and to some extent you should, even if Lundkvist isn’t quite as sure a thing as Seguin was to everyone except the geniuses in Boston at the time. But Nill has shown for a decade that he’s not averse to moving big assets if it helps him fill a bigger need. You’ll remember that Nill spent a fourth-round pick just for the rights to negotiate with Ben Bishop back in 2017, then went and paid $30 million for a 30-year-old goaltender. Nill also spent real dollars and perceived assets to fill real and perceived holes with players like Alex Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Ben Lovejoy, and Kris Russell. He’s not been the most active general manager in the world, but when he targets a need, he’s willing to outbid folks to get something the Stars think they need. 

But it’s sort of fascinating that he decided that Lundkvist, in particular, is that something,  if for no other reason than the fact that he is, unlike so many other non-Seguin acquisitions, not old. The opposite, in fact! Lundkvist was born in the year 2000, which is great for those of us who needed proof that time itself is out to destroy us. 

So he’s young, which means his potential is an asset all its own, but I don’t think this trade was really about potential quite as much as timing. Young players with valuable tools are the sort of thing you bet on when you get the chance to do so, and Lundkvist has them. The rarity of skilled, right-handed, playmaking defensemen in the NHL already made him arguably the top prospect in the Rangers’ system. The elite scoring ability he displayed in Sweden as a 19-year-old helps make sense of one of the conditions of the trade: if Lundkvist produces 55 total points across the next two seasons, the fourth-round pick turns into a 2025 third-rounder. For context, that’s a target Esa Lindell wouldn’t have hit over the last two years, despite power play time and a partnership with Klingberg for long stretches. The mere fact that both teams agreed to this condition speaks to its plausibility. So there’s reason to be rather optimistic about this trade for Dallas.

As for the cost, you can see Nill’s logic prima facie: if the Stars’ window for contention is open, why wait to use a first-round pick next year when you can get a first-round asset who’s ready to contribute now? The Stars’ cap situation is going to be a little tight for the next couple of years, but the 22-year-old Lundkvist will be making under a million bucks for the next two years and is still an RFA after that. A playmaking, right-handed defenseman is one of the toughest things to acquire, which is why it meant so much, eight years ago, when a 22-year-old Klingberg arrived in Dallas. Players like this can change a team. 

But you can’t really stop there. The Rangers chose to let Lundkvist go for futures, and as steep a price as a conditional first and fourth sounds, it’s really not a Seguin package. In essence, the Rangers dumped an unhappy player who had demanded a trade after losing his roster spot to three other defensemen on the right side. In the end, New York recouped just a little more than they spent to draft him in the first place when they selected him 28th overall in 2018. That’s a sobering thought no matter how foolish you think Rangers general manager Chris Drury is. Teams don’t let these sorts of players walk without good reason. 

And the reasons they let him walk? Well, that depends on how you feel about Jacob Trouba, I suppose. New York didn’t see him contributing to their future significantly enough to make room for him, and that made Lundkvist unhappy, and the Rangers found a way to cash him in before things soured. But make no mistake, the Julius Honka scars are about to sting afresh, because Lundkvist is under 6 feet, and most accounts say that he fancies himself a player who ought to have the puck on his stick and be put on the power play. 

Good things all, even accounting for the hubris of professional athletes, but you can’t help but worry about what a veteran NHL coach like Pete DeBoer will do if Lundkvist doesn’t force him to play him over safer, lower-risk options. Yes, you’d expect DeBoer to read the room and give his boss’s new toy a chance to shine, but Nill has always been one to let coaches pick their lineups without any public repercussions, so I think it’s fair to wonder just how fans will feel about this trade if Lundkvist ends up rotating in and out of the third pairing for half of the season. In other words, I’m wondering how fans will feel if Lundkvist gets used exactly like Thomas Harley was used last year. 

Still, Lundkvist is a player I’m excited about, because I think he’ll tell us everything we need to know about DeBoer within five games of the season. Will DeBoer dare to pair him with Harley in an effort to juice the transition game, or will he usually be stapled to Joel Hanley or a similarly “safe” option? While the billing for DeBoer has suggested that he’s aiming for the golden mean between aggression and cowardice, everyone has a daring plan until the whistles blow. Now DeBoer has the unenviable task of choosing what to do with an opinionated, talented young player that his boss paid a lot of money to invite to the party in Frisco. Only time will tell if DeBoer is prepared to take as many risks as Jim Nill just did, but you’d have to think that Nill wouldn’t blindside his new coach with a move like this, right? If Ken Hitchcock got the chance to push for Martin Hanzal’s signing five years ago, you’d hope that DeBoer at the very least has a plan for Lundkvist that doesn’t involve turning him into a grocery checkout divider.

Julius Honka never could manage to prove to his coaches that he was willing to do what NHL defensemen need to do, and he fell to 10th on the depth chart when injuries racked up in the 2019 playoffs. DeBoer is his own coach, but Lundkvist still needs to show the right balance of talent and humility in training camp this month if he wants the right to wax poetic on the ice in October. Who doesn’t love a bit of training camp drama?

Personally, I’m expecting some growing pains for coach and player, but you can forgive me for erring on the side of cynicism these days. We’ll all be elated if the Stars find an offensive renaissance that coincides with the offensive defenseman’s arrival, and long-term, Lundkvist projects as the sort of talent who could not only fill a need in Dallas’s depth chart for some help on the right side, but potentially redefines those needs altogether. He may not have blown the doors off the NHL quite yet, but he also spent his cup of coffee last year with some of the weakest defense partners the Rangers could have put him with, none moreso than one-time Stars blueliner Patrik Nemeth. The Stars are surely betting that Lundkvist will thrive when given a better opportunity, and we can only hope that’s exactly what he gets.

These days, I’m happy with Dallas simply trying to do something extraordinary, regardless of whether it’s Harley, Lundkvist, or someone entirely different leading the new wave. The Stars might be the third-best team in their division right now, but as the Minnesota Wild taught everyone last year when they blew their cap situation to shreds right before posting 113 points in the regular season, you can either sit around waiting for things to get better, or you can force the issue and damn the torpedoes. It’s still early, but Jim Nill appears to be calling for full steam ahead. 

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Robert Tiffin

Robert Tiffin

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Robert Tiffin covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has worked for SB Nation as a writer and editor, covering the…

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