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Hockey

Miro Heiskanen’s Injury Will Be the Stars’ Greatest Test—and Opportunity, Too

In many ways, losing the franchise defenseman is the worst-case scenario for Dallas' season. But it could also help the Stars take a step forward in one key area.
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The Finn's injury will continue to have major implications. Jerome Miron-USA Today Sports.

Jim Nill has picked up plenty of guiding principles in more than three decades in hockey management, but one of them has taken on extra weight in the last week: “You can never have too many defensemen.”

Take a gander at a Nill-constructed roster, and chances are it’s overstocked with blue liners. Some years, that’s meant carrying eight defenders on the NHL roster. This season, it meant signing three veteran defenders to provide leadership in the AHL, while also giving Nill confidence he could fill a third pair with the services of Gavin Bayreuther, Alex Petrovic, or Derrick Pouliout when an NHL injury inevitably struck. 

But you could stockpile all the depth defensemen in the world and still never have a proper replacement for Miro Heiskanen. That’s the challenge the Stars have been facing since the defender crashed into his own net in Thursday’s overtime loss against the Colorado Avalanche and hobbled off the ice. He’s now in the ambiguous “week to week” timeframe, leaving the Stars without their defensive anchor and best power-play driver in the wake of having lost three of their past four games. 

Add in the injury to Jake Oettinger, who has missed 12 straight games, plus the Winnipeg Jets, led by former Dallas coach Rick Bowness, storming to the top of the Central Division—and the entire league—and Heiskanen’s injury feels more dire. Even after Matt Murray’s surprise shutout got Dallas back into the win column on Monday against the Minnesota Wild, the regular season suddenly feels like a test for the Stars. It’s no longer a season-long tinker-toy session before the playoffs; rather, there’s a real challenge to get into the top two in the Central Division. Otherwise the playoffs could start in Denver, where the Avalanche have been destroying opponents at home. 

That’s the bad news from a Stars perspective. There’s never a good time for an injury to your best player, and this just might be the worst possible scenario aside from Heiskanen missing time in the playoffs. 

But what if it isn’t?

Hear me out. 

For as good as Thomas Harley has been—and we’ve sung his praises here at StrongSidehe hadn’t gotten the ice time to reflect that. Before Heiskanen got hurt, Harley was averaging less ice time per game than Esa Lindell, Ryan Suter, and Jani Hakanpää. The only defenders getting less ice time than Harley were the enigmatic Nils Lundkvist and Joel Hanley, who re-signed with Dallas for two years knowing he was No. 7 on the NHL depth chart. 

So by force, the Stars have had to turn Harley loose since Heiskanen’s injury. Beginning with the Colorado loss, Harley has averaged 24:01 of ice time in the three games since Heiskanen exited the lineup, good for a team-leading total of 58 minutes, 48 seconds at even strength. During those minutes, the Stars have 75.3 percent of expected goal share, according to Natural Stat Trick; by comparison, the Stars have a 51.3 expected goals share on the season. Then there’s the most important number: the Stars have outscored opponents 4-0 in the past three games when Harley is on the ice. 

While it has become conventional wisdom that Harley is the Stars’ second-best defenseman, it somehow took their No. 1 defender getting hurt for the 22-year-old to be treated like one of the most important players on the roster. 

Maybe, just maybe, the Stars should do more of this even after Heiskanen returns from injury. Imagine a reality where Heiskanen plays his normal 25 minutes per game, while Harley hums along at 23 minutes. That’s close to 48 minutes out of 60 per game when the Stars will have a decided advantage on the left side of the ice against most opponents, and a heavyweight combo across the top two pairings to counter the likes of Cale Makar and Devon Toews in Colorado. 

There is, of course, the matter of everyone else having to step up in Heiskanen’s absence. While Lindell and Hakanpää have their flaws at even strength, they’ve been dynamic penalty killers, putting in more than seven minutes of perfect work on Monday against the Wild. The Stars have also tinkered with the power play, even trying a five-forward look in the game against the Avalanche. Make no mistake, though: Harley excepted, the current group doesn’t have the ceiling to replace everything Heiskanen brings. That won’t stop the continued calls for Lundvkist to play more, which is a subject I’m done arguing about. I have my view on the situation, the Stars coaches have theirs, but Pete DeBoer and his staff have the final say—and to be frank, Lundvkist isn’t doing enough himself to justify the excuses fans and writers provide for him. 

But Harley, as I’ve written before, has passed every test, including ones he shouldn’t have had to pass. If there’s a silver lining to Heiskanen’s injury, it’s that when things looked extremely rocky, Harley was trusted to save the day. The Stars will be better for it once Heiskanen joins him back on the ice. It’s the defensemen after them who will have plenty to say about whether or not Dallas will be in position to carry that over into May and June.

Author

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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