It was only a year ago that Roman Polak received a nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy after recovering from a broken leg to have one of the stronger seasons in his career. However, after carrying that momentum through his debut season with the Dallas Stars, Polak’s future is once again in question. There is no denying he was a valuable asset to the Stars’ back end after Marc Methot and Stephen Johns sustained season-ending injuries, but whether the club will have room for him moving forward is still to be determined. Regardless, credit is owed to Polak for his hard-nosed style of play that rarely showed up on the scoresheet.
Overall & Even Strength Impact
Even at his best, Polak is never going to log minutes the way Esa Lindell and John Klingberg do. Still, his 19:10 average time on ice in 2018-19 was fourth-most among Stars defensemen and the most in his career since 2014-15. Few could have predicted Polak would take on such responsibility when he was signed as a free agent last summer, but it was what he did with that ice time that made the difference.
The Czech-native has never been known for supplying many points—only pitching in one goal and eight assists last season—but he was third on the team in defensive point shares (DPS) with 4.6. Only Lindell (6.7) and Klingberg (4.9) had more estimated points contributed by a player due to their defense.
Additionally, of players who played at least 30 games with the Stars, Jason Dickinson was the lone player possessing a higher team on-ice save percentage at even strength (oiSV%). Simply put, the Stars had a save percentage of .946 with Dickinson on the ice and .942 with Polak on the ice. Polak’s success arguably came from his gritty, physical brand of play; his 191 hits trailed only Blake Comeau, who threw his weight around 208 times.
He’s one of those teammates who will really go out and lay it on the line for you. He has a big voice in this room. I’m not sure that anyone in this room thought we would be getting out of him what we are getting out of him, but it’s working out for us.
– Jamie Benn, Stars captain(From ‘How Roman Polak went from depth defenseman to Stars’ 20-minute warrior’ – NHL.com – Mike Heika – 03/12/2019).
What’s more impressive is that Polak’s numbers improved when it mattered the most. In the playoffs, he averaged 19:29 time on ice while sporting a .957 oiSV%. He may have spent much of his ice time in his own zone, and his turnover numbers may have been higher than normal this season, but the Stars found defensive success when he was on the ice, and that’s a desirable trait for any team.
Penalty Kill Impact
Polak is the type of player best utilized on the penalty kill, he knows how to close off passing lanes and isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body. This proved to be the case last season as Polak finished the year second in both shorthanded time on ice per game (2:38) and blocked shots (152). The only player above him in both categories is the recently extended Lindell.
He’s been instrumental to the penalty kill, he’s been instrumental to the dressing room. We’ve talked about the positive impact he’s had on the ice and off the ice. He’s someone we couldn’t imagine playing without.
– Jim Montgomery, Stars Head Coach(From ‘Polak’s positive influence felt throughout Stars’ lineup’ – NHL.com – Mike Heika – 05/03/2019).
Nine’s a Crowd
It would seem like an easy decision to bring Polak back for at least another year, but there are other names vying for his job. It helps his case that Methot has already been told by general manager Jim Nill that the Stars will not be re-signing him, but that leaves nine defensemen who will be battling for NHL jobs. It also helps that Polak was instrumental in the success of rookie sensation Heiskanen after serving as his partner for most of the season.
Already signed for 2019-20 are Lindell, Klingberg, Heiskanen and Jamie Oleksiak (excluded is Johns as he remains sidelined with post-concussion syndrome). Julius Honka is the sole rostered restricted free agent, so he will most likely be back. That leaves unrestricted free agents Ben Lovejoy, Taylor Fedun and Polak, along with non-rostered restricted free agent Gavin Bayreuther to fight for the remaining two or three spots, depending on how many defensemen the Stars carry.
Lovejoy has Stanley Cup pedigree after winning a title with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016; Fedun showed great promise this season playing in 54 games and notching four goals, seven assists and two power play points; meanwhile, Bayreuther logged a heavy 18:11 average time on ice in 19 games as a rookie and pitched in two goals, three assists and two power play points as well.
It’s going to be a tough decision for Nill, but the wise choice would be to bring Polak back on an inexpensive one-year deal. He is a fundamentally different player from any other defenseman on the roster—even big Oleksiak doesn’t play as mean of a game as Polak. The 33-year-old makes life difficult for the other team’s top scorers and has proven to be a fantastic presence in the locker room, which is an intangible not to be overlooked in a decision such as this. Depth at the defensive position is what allowed the Stars to remain a contender last season, and bringing Polak back would give Dallas exactly that.