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Predators vs. Stars Series Preview: Stars Defenders

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Up close (but not personal) with the Stars defensive corps.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Stars currently have ten defenders on their roster. Throughout the early-midseason InjuryFest (the t-shirts were awesome), Dallas employed a “plug and play” approach to fill in missing pieces, but, wherever they could, the coaching staff showed heavy trust in three players. First, we’ll take a look at those three.

Of course, an overall look at the Stars’ defensive body of work would come in handy, as we will be comparing each part to this whole throughout this article:

Two red eyes and a screaming mouth, or a lot of action at the points and not much in the slot? You decide.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Overall, besides a little bit more action from the right faceoff circle and some blue ice issues, the Stars have done a pretty good job keeping the majority of shots out at the point.

Top Three

John Klingberg

Klingberg is hands-down the number one scoring defender for the Dallas Stars. Despite missing eighteen games this season to what is known in Nashville as an “upper body injury” (hand), he has produced more points (45) and more assists (35) in fewer games (64) than any other defender on the team. While he may have two fewer goals (10) than Miro Heiskanen (12), Heiskanen was able to play the full 82-game season.

Defensively, Klingberg does work as well:

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

While, Klingberg is partially responsible for some of those shots coming from the right faceoff circle, he also keeps shots out of the slot and pushes offensive chances back to the blueline. Guess what happens when he’s off the ice?

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Teams dine in the blue ice. If the Predators are going to thrive, they will need to get their net-front guys (Viktor Arvidsson, Wayne Simmonds, Brian Boyle) in there when Klingberg is off the ice.

Esa Lindell

Now, let’s take a look at Esa Lindell. Lindell has been Klingberg’s most frequent partner on the top pairing this season. Offensively, he was responsible for the second most goals (11) and the third most points (32) by a defender. He’s also the owner of two short-handed goals, the most on the team.

Defensively, it’s another story:

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Remember the feast in front of the net with Klingberg gone? Lindell is a part of the issue. It goes without saying that he covers the left side fairly well, but bad things have happened with his defense partners.

Miro Heiskanen

Klingberg and Lindell have a lot of second and third place production stats among defenders, so who wears the crown? Rookie Miro Heiskanen!

Heiskanen had the most goals among the defense corps with 12, while his assist count was the same as Lindell’s (21). He moved up to the first pairing in Klingberg’s absence and has recently been up and down between the first and second pairing, sometimes taking Lindell’s place. This is a trend I would expect to continue until the Stars figure out their ideal matchups against the Predators.

Not a screaming face, for a change. Must be a heatmap.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

The red in front of the net isn’t great, especially since Heiskanen plays the left side, but I’ve definitely seen worse, and he makes up for it in transition and on offense. There’s also an overall averageness to Heiskanen’s defense, with no vast pits of oblivion or areas where everyone is shooting from.

Speaking of transition and offense...

The Transition Game

I’ve compared the Stars’ defenders to our own Nashville Predators defenders to give you something to compare to.

Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

It must be said, first and foremost, that sample sizes here are not ideal. However, Klingberg and Heiskanen are incredible if you want to get the puck out of your zone, Lindell...well, not so much. The Predators will definitely want Lindell to try to do most of the exiting, as his results tend to be more of the dump, clear, and fail variety.

Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

Again, outside of Klingberg, Heiskanen and the mysterious Julius Honka, the Stars have much to hope for in the way of one of their defenders entering the zone cleanly—everyone else just dumps it. If you see one of the Stars’ other defenders headed toward the blue line, expect him to avoid crossing it with the puck on his stick.

What about when the an opponent tries to enter the zone? How do the defenders do at stopping them?

Data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Viz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

Surprisingly, given his good on-ice results, Klingberg will not only open the door, but hold it for you as well. Lindell and Heiskanen provide a much better chance of standing someone up at the line, but the Predators are better at it overall.

Bottom Four

Roman Polák

Polák holds the Stars’ record for PIM (69) and is not a major scoring threat with only one goal. This 6’2” wrecking ball weighs in at 240 pounds and plays on the second pairing, primarily with Heiskanen. Polák is not a fighter (he’s only had one fighting major), but he’s no lover either. His specialty is punishing checks that will make you think twice about playing the puck near him ever again.

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Once you get into the zone with Polák, he isn’t doing much to stop you. He does a solid job of taking up space, but shots really heat up in the slot and around the net when he’s around.

Ben Lovejoy

Lovejoy plays on the third pairing. He came over from the New Jersey Devils. He’s known for pledging to donate his brain to research upon his death. I, for one, think this is a remarkable thing to do and I applaud his efforts. He’s also not a scoring threat. How does his defense stack up?

[Ed.: I knew this was coming, I’d seen it earlier today, and I still choked when I scrolled down this far.]
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Yikes—it isn’t good, folks.

Taylor Fedun

With his four goals and seven assists, Fedun is the best offensive third pairing defender on the team. His defense is also worth noting:

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Solid, solid, solid. Fedun has a dramatic positive impact when he’s on the ice. Why he’s been on the third pairing all year is beyond me. I can only assume the threat of Polak outweighs the quality of Fedun in the minds of the Stars’ coaching staff.

Jamie Oleksiak

This is a large man. 6’7” and 255 pounds is a whole lotta beef on skates. While he hasn’t been involved in a fight since he came to Dallas, he’s certainly willing to pummel opponents into submission. His stats with the Pittsburgh Penguins closely match those of Fedun, but since the trade, he’s only managed one assist.

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Realistically, Oleksiak is the ideal partner for Fedun. I mean, really, he’s probably a better second-pair defender than Polák, but obviously Dallas knows something all of these charts don’t because they leave him on the second pairing.

[Ed.: Oleksiak is a good skater but he doesn’t have the best judgment. It’s hard to pick out over a couple of games, but people who watch the Stars on the regular mention that he struggles reading and reacting to plays at NHL speed. Of course, Polák struggles, uh, playing the game at NHL speed, so who even knows.]

Either way, I would expect to see Oleksiak and Fedun on the third pairing over Lovejoy, who by all metrics, is not that good at hockey. Of course, it should be noted that Oleksiak and Fedun don’t have a lot of time playing together because the brain trust over in Dallas kept placing Lovejoy on the ice with one of the other guys.

For the sake of the Predators, I hope Lovejoy sees more icetime.

The Other Guys

Julius Honka hasn’t played in a long time. I don’t see any reason why he would end up on the ice unless two other guys were injured.

Stephen Johns and Marc Methot are on the roster but are currently injured. We probably won’t see them at all. Johns hasn’t played all season, and Methot has been out since the beginning of November.


Visualizations from hockeyviz.com and CJ Turtoro.