Saturday, April 20, 2024 Apr 20, 2024
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In Praise of Thomas Harley, Who Is Succeeding at Every Turn

As the Nils Lundkvist debate rages on, Harley has surmounted every obstacle on the way to becoming an essential piece of the Stars' core.
Harley's emergence has been crucial for the Stars defense. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports.

When it comes to the Stars’ defensive saga and their struggles developing young defenders, there has often been a “yeah, but…” modifier at the end. 

It’s a hot topic of debate right now with Nils Lunkdvist, who has been embroiled in the online discourse of whether he should be a healthy scratch by Stars coach Pete DeBoer, as he was on Monday against the Detroit Red Wings. 

If you think Lundkvist should play more, which I do, it’s easy to get to the refrain and provide excuses for why he should get more ice time or how the Stars have botched his development since his trade from the New York Rangers in September 2022. (David Castillo dove into the issue for us last week on StrongSide.)

It’s eerily similar to the much more heated Julius Honka debate. In that one, Stars coaches were ultimately proven right, as Honka is now playing in Switzerland at the age of 28 in what was supposed to be the prime of his NHL career. 

But this isn’t a Lundkvist deep dive or a Honka retrospective. Rather, this is an appreciation of Thomas Harley, the young defender who never needed an excuse or a “yeah, but…” commentary about his usage in the NHL. 

Consider the environment in which Harley started his career. He entered the NHL at a weird time, during the round robin of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Edmonton bubble. Then, during the very messy 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons—when COVID was still a factor—he was part of a weird roster shuffle between the NHL, the AHL, and taxis squads. 

Harley was never rushed, never forced onto the NHL roster, and part of that was because teams had to go deep into their pool of available players during those seasons as COVID tests and close-contact situations were the norm. No one who wasn’t already on an NHL roster was going to break in easily.

When things normalized during the 2022-23 season, the Stars normalized their view of defensive prospects. Harley was sent back to the AHL and told to work on his game, while Lundkvist was effectively given an NHL roster spot because he wasn’t waiver-exempt. 

Harley put in the work. He dominated the AHL for 66 games, had 34 points as a defenseman and played big minutes on the power play and penalty kill. Like Jake Oettinger during the 2021-22 season, Harley went to the AHL with a chip on his shoulder and didn’t sulk. If there was a plan for his arrival, it wasn’t obvious to anyone outside the organization. Instead, it was incumbent on Harley to make his own luck and force the team’s hand to get to Dallas.

And when Harley was recalled from the AHL last April, he instantly stepped into the lineup and became the Stars’ second-best defenseman behind Miro Heiskanen. That continued into the playoffs, even in a rough-and-tumble series against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals. 

For everything that Lundkvist was given, including the chance to start in the NHL, Harley forced the Stars to open the window of opportunity. Then he quickly skated through it. 

The “yeah, but…” moments for Harley never materialized. Those columns never needed to be penned. This season he has solidified himself and eliminated a problem some outsiders assumed would crop up for Dallas on the second defensive pair. 

To take it even further: without Harley, the Stars would be in trouble. 

While Heiskanen had a two-goal night against Detroit, his offensive production has dipped significantly this season, most likely costing him a chance at the 2024 Norris Trophy. Esa Lindell also scored on Monday, his second goal of the season, which is two more than Lundkvist, Joel Hanley, Jani Hakanpaa, and Ryan Suter have combined. 

Meanwhile, Harley has six goals, and the Stars are 4-1-1 in games in which he has found the back of the net. His five even-strength goals are tied for fourth-best in the NHL among defensemen, trailing only Quinn Hughes (nine), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (six), and Drew Doughty (six). 

For all the hoopla and wonderment about what Lundkvist could bring as an offensive defenseman, Harley has quietly delivered that and more despite not being gifted his own power play opportunities—a whopping 15 seconds on average per game to Lundkvist’s 1:27. 

And the goals only highlight other key developments. Harley primarily starts his shifts in the defensive or neutral zone, another stark contrast to Lundkvist (who starts 55 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone), and the Stars have out-chanced teams, 198-163, when he’s on the ice, according to NaturalStatTrick. The Stars are a good team, but they tend to be an even better one when the 22-year-old is on the ice. 

The only flaw with Harley, if you could call it that, is that because he isn’t right-handed, he isn’t a natural fit to play 23-plus minutes a night with Heiskanen. Instead, the Stars have stumbled into the next best thing: a bona fide second-pair anchor who both drives the play and makes life easier on his defensive partner. Harley is this good, and he is still getting better, and all of this is credit to the player himself.

The point isn’t to treat Harley’s rapid growth as an indictment of Lundkvist’s bumpier track. Players are people, and people handle environments differently. It is not mutually exclusive to suggest that a different plan or usage for Lundkvist would suit his development better, but also that if Lundkvist were the player so many hope him to be, he’d transcend organizational challenges. 

Because some players can. Thomas Harley is one of them. And perhaps the best compliment that can be paid his way is that while other young players can be given excuses when times get tough, Harley has simply eliminated any need for them.


Sean Shapiro

Sean Shapiro

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Sean Shapiro covers the Stars for StrongSide. He is a national NHL reporter and writer who previously covered the Dallas…

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