Most of us were confused when Jim Nill acquired Nils Lundkvist from the New York Rangers in September. Trading a first-round pick—which he had never done—for someone else’s recent first-round selection—which he had also never done—just wasn’t his style. The convenient explanation was that Nill had to find a cost-effective way to replace John Klingberg, but there was clearly something else behind the move. After all, Thomas Harley was on the cusp, with a similar profile and more NHL games under his belt. Nill isn’t one to take risks, cost-effective or not.
Sure enough, Jeff Marek would later report that this move traces its roots back to 2018, when Dallas had a draft-day deal with Detroit to trade for the 30th overall pick if Lundkvist were still available. If Nill knew who Lundkvist was four years ago, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t confident in who Lundkvist was heading into the 2022-2023 season. And Nill, a professional scout since the early ‘90s, was right. Because Lundkvist has already become a key cog in the Stars’ defense, and he’s done it with a risk-free approach beyond his years.
Puck-moving defensemen carry a specific reputation. It’s always implied that their ability to create offense comes at the cost of defense, and former Dallas players like Klingberg and Julius Honka fit the bill to different degrees. Not Lundkvist. At 22 years old, he’s surprisingly steady with the puck already. While the offense is there with his on and off-puck movement, he never cheats. He’s a pleasant contradiction on the blueline: disciplined and poised, but dangerous, too.
I started noticing his unlikely grace with my manual tracking of zone entries and exits. Since October 29, Lundkvist dumps the puck out on 48 percent of his defensive-zone breakouts. He doesn’t profile like Miro Heiskanen, who uses his skating to exit with possession on 80 percent of his zone exits. Instead, he profiles closer to Jani Hakanpaa, who dumps the puck out 45 percent of the time. What that says about his game is worth its own story (if you’re a hockey nerd), but to me, it speaks to his maturity. By keeping it simple, Lundkvist gets to play it safe. In fact, he turns the puck over at the same rate as Heiskanen—which is to say, not at all. Both are tied for the team lead at allowing the fewest giveaways.
The end result is that Pete DeBoer trusts him. Not only has he said as much, and praised his well-roundedness, but the proof is on the ice. When Lundkvist debuted against Nashville in Dallas’ first game of the season, he played 15 minutes in all situations. Since then he has averaged 18 minutes a night, nearly the same amount as Hakanpaa and behind only Heiskanen, Ryan Suter, and Esa Lindell, the team’s three-highest-paid defensemen. DeBoer’s trust is only growing.
There’s more to this than meets the eye. Lundkvist fitting in so well has allowed DeBoer to divorce himself from how the previous regimes managed minutes. The gap in ice time between the most-used defender and the least was massive under Ken Hitchcock, Jim Montgomery, and Rick Bowness—upward of 10 minutes. With DeBoer, that gap has shrunk five minutes, with Heiskanen predictably leading the way and Colin Miller as the trailer. Heiskanen’s minutes are the lowest since his rookie season, however, so this isn’t DeBoer relying on some sort of nebulous trickle-down effect. “Everybody ropes, everybody rides,” as Lindy Ruff used to say.
Lundkvist is slowly growing into a top-four role, in other words. Over the last five games, he’s third in icetime among blueliners, averaging more than 19 minutes. He’s also been paired with Heiskanen in “must score” minutes, as we saw against Winnipeg and Tampa.
This is all exciting and encouraging, but it doesn’t help us answer the most important question: how good is he in the here and now, 41 games into his NHL career? There’s obviously some good. He’s been on ice for 101 shot attempts for and 85 against, leading to a sparkling 54 percent Corsi For, second among Dallas defenders behind only Heiskanen. Lundkvist leads the team in high danger-chance differential at 52 percent.
But there’s also some bad. Among regular pairs, Suter and Lundkvist sit at the bottom in terms of shot-quality differential.
But context, of course, matters. Lundkvist is playing a key role on a defense that, under DeBoer, is punching above its weight. While I’ve defended this group as underrated, it isn’t supposed to be elite. Per Evolving-Hockey, Dallas’ defensive group ranks 18th in the league. Yet despite that, the Stars are eighth in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes of even strength play and 11th in allowing shots more likely to become goals (xGA.60), which is very above average. Lundkvist may not be driving the bus, but he’s a big part of helping DeBoer steer the wheel.
There’s still much to learn about Dallas, and about Lundkvist. MoneyPuck’s Playoff Odds have Dallas with a 7.5 percent chance of winning the Cup, the third-highest odds of any team behind only Vegas and Carolina. They are currently plus-18 in goal differential thanks to how they open each game, outscoring teams in the first period 20 to 7. That differential is more meaningful than your average number. It’s an omen—not as surefire as the Thanksgiving cutoff, but predictive nonetheless given there’s a strong correlation between early-season goal differentials and where teams are by the end of the year. (Last year’s Stars were quite the case study. Sixteen games in, they were at minus-8. They finished the season at minus-8.) Teams know who the Stars are now, which means every player should start feeling the weight of those expectations on their shoulders. While Wyatt Johnston and Ty Dellandrea can be insulated by more linemates and playing less minutes, Lundkvist has no such luxury. How will he respond?
When Nill made the trade, there was a modest worry—one well-articulated by Robert Tiffin—that DeBoer might not be patient. If Lundkvist ended up as a depth defender, there’d be an awful lot of egg on Nill’s face given what he gave up. It’s apparent now that such fears were unfounded. It’s also apparent how good Dallas is, and the significant role Lundkvist plays in their success. What’s less obvious is how much higher he can climb. Lundkvist was never supposed to replace Klingberg. He was only supposed to replace elements of Klingberg’s game. Instead he’s brought something altogether different: steadiness. No wonder Nill was after him.