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The Stars Prepare to Ride Their Defense Into the Playoffs

Chris Tanev and Thomas Harley have risen to the occasion.
The Stars acquired Chris Tanev from the Flames in a three-team deal. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in early November, the Stars were fighting for the top spot in the Central Division on the strength of a 7-3-1 start. There were some minor concerns, but on the whole, Dallas was playing like one of the best teams in the NHL. With 13 games remaining in the regular season, the Stars are in much the same place. Despite injuries to Miro Heiskanen, Tyler Seguin, and Jake Oettinger, they’re now just four points shy of having the best record in the league. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but Peter DeBoer has shepherded this team to the cusp of another playoff run without too many stumbles along the way. 

Those minor concerns, you may recall, were almost entirely related to the defense. Would Miro Heiskanen’s playing time be limited to keep him fresh for the playoffs? Could Dallas solve its second power-play unit’s woes? Would the Stars find a more robust alternative to the Esa Lindell-Jani Hakanpää pairing? Another regular season of moderate success wouldn’t mean much if the Stars once again crumbled against the elite blue line of the Golden Knights and other contenders. 

But when Jim Nill acquired Chris Tanev at the trade deadline, the Stars, at long last, had addressed all three of these areas. Despite the speculation about Tanev moving up to the top pairing to allow the left-handed Heiskanen to play back on his strong side, DeBoer has instead stuck with a Lindell-Tanev duo on the second pairing. 

Good thing, too, because those two have been outstanding since being paired. Through six games, the Stars’ new shutdown pairing has soaked up the majority of the defensive zone starts while putting up a plus-3 rating at even strength. That’s backed up by underlying metrics, as the Stars have gotten more than 63 percent of the scoring chances with that duo on the ice, which is in the rarified air of the Heiskanen-Thomas Harley pairing. 

Yes, it’s a small sample size, but given that Lindell-Hakanpää was struggling to break even on goals and chances with similar usage, Dallas really does appear to finally have a second defense pairing that can play serious minutes against serious teams in the playoffs—seriously. Tanev engenders trust with his skating, his size, and his smart puck play, and that’s before you even get to the fact that he’s right-handed, which is an unfortunately rare trait among top four defensemen in the organization.  

That’s good news for Heiskanen as well, as a trustworthy second pairing anchored by Tanev allows DeBoer to optimize Heiskanen’s deployment rather than use him to spackle over the shortcomings of other pairings, as sometimes previously happened. It has been reflected in Heiskanen’s minutes, too, as he’s averaging nearly a minute less per game than last year. 

Miro’s minutes will go up in the playoffs, as they should, but load management (or whatever passes for it in the NHL) is less about sitting for extended periods and more about avoiding unnecessary burdens. The more tough minutes Tanev and Lindell can absorb, the more chances Dallas will have to unleash a fresh Harley and Heiskanen. That’s a one-two punch Dallas really hasn’t had since Heiskanen’s first couple of seasons in the NHL, when John Klingberg was still playing at a high level alongside Lindell. 

And unleashing the best players to attack is key because, as you may have heard recently, the Stars’ optimal defensive approach has never been to batten down the hatches and block shots for hours on end. Rather, this is a team designed to transition the puck north and get after its opponent without giving it a moment to regroup. With Harley threatening Philippe Boucher’s* franchise record for regular-reason goals by a defenseman, Dallas’ transition game has never been scarier. 

*That 2006-07 Stars season deserves more love than it gets, by the way. The first couple of years after the 2004 lockout were a bit all over the place, but Boucher’s All-Star campaign and Marty Turco’s legendary and tragic goaltending performance against Vancouver were a couple of worthwhile stories on a team that put together a genuinely special playoff run the following year.

With all due respect to Tanev, though, no one deserves more credit for the Stars’ solidified defensive lineup than Harley. Not only did he step up in Heiskanen’s absence to steady the top pairing, but he also grabbed the scruff of the power-play’s neck and never really let go, unfortunately for Nils Lundkvist. Harley has been the Stars’ best player on more than a few occasions, and his ability to play alongside Heiskanen atop the defense corps has been deservedly praised. These sorts of players are a coach’s dream, as they make so many things that much simpler, both on their own pairing and across the rest of the lineup. It’s a top defensive pair that’s as dangerous as they come, and without a glaring weakness. Heiskanen may still be playing on his off side, but with these two players, there really is no weak side. 

While things can change before the playoffs begin, the Stars’ top four on defense look to be as strong as that of any team in the NHL. Stars fans enjoy the luxury that all good teams have, which is to complain about the margins of the lineup because so many of the other areas leave little room for grief. This includes Ryan Suter, who is no longer needed on the power play and who can, as a result, be an eminently dependable third-pairing defenseman, which is exactly what he is at this stage of his career. 

As for that third pairing, you can debate whether Suter should be paired with Hakanpää in the playoffs, as DeBoer seems to prefer, or whether Lundkvist deserves a chance to prove that his chemistry with Suter this season has been more than just decent results in sheltered minutes. The beauty of the debate, though, is that it involves the Stars’ bottom pairing. After too many playoff runs with Joel Hanley as the best option on the third pairing, the Stars finally look ready to head into the playoffs with an abundance of useful defensemen rounding out the edges of the roster rather than bearing the bulk of the load. 

Both power-play units are packed to the gills with dangerous players, front to back, and the penalty kill has been solid when called upon. The forward lines can overwhelm teams with scoring threats up and down the lineup, and that’s remained true even while Seguin and Evgenii Dadonov have missed time. 

But ever since the loss to Vegas last spring, the defense has been the biggest question mark for this roster. Now, almost a full season later, the blue line finally looks ready to compete with the best of the West. It’s a good thing, too, with Oettinger not exactly inspiring confidence these days. But goaltending is unpredictable, and Oettinger’s pedigree before last year was as solid as you could expect from a young netminder entering his prime. You can’t control the vicissitudes of the goaltending roller coaster, but you can fortify things directly in front of the crease. And the Stars have done about as good a job of that as anyone could have asked for.


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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