This week, the Dallas Stars re-signed defenseman Julius Honka. With this signing, the Stars now have nine defensemen on their active roster. That number poses a couple of questions about where the Stars’ defense is at right now and what it’ll look like come the start of the 2020-21 season (whenever that may be).
Also, what’s going to happen with Stephen Johns? The defenseman decided to sit out most of the 2020 playoffs saying he was still uncomfortable on the ice after missing 22 months with post-concussion syndrome. (from ‘Stars unsure of defenseman Stephen Johns’ future following postseason run,’ Dallas Morning News, 10/08/2020)
Let’s take a look at two of the defensemen that could round out the Stars roster come the new season.
Julius Honka: Honk(a) If You Like Hockey
Drafted in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Honka had a lot of promise, and a lot of expectation— Dallas had a lot of expectations in 2014 after finally making the playoffs again. Of course, some defensemen take time to mature and adjust, especially European defensemen switching to North American play.
Honka headed to the Stars’ AHL affiliate and in his first three seasons there he proved he had a knack for offense, posting 30-plus points in each season. He looked like a defenseman of what Stars fans now think of like the John Klingberg variety: quick, good hands, and offensively-minded.
Unfortunately for Honka, his transition to the NHL wasn’t a smooth one. In 2017-18, his first full season in the league, the cut to make it on the ice for the Stars was tough. The team had eight defensemen play at least 20 games that season, and under head coach Ken Hitchcock, Honka’s playing time was reduced and he was scratched for stretches of the season.
This was in part due to Hitchcock’s defense-first mindset and seeing Honka’s offensive rush style of playing as riskier than necessary for the team. The other defensemen being slotted into the lineup when he was scratched were much more stay-at-home styled veteran d-men like Marc Methot.
It soon became apparent the following season under former head coach Jim Montgomery, with Klingberg cementing himself as a top-tier offensive defenseman and rookie Miro Heiskanen showing immediate success, that there wasn’t room for Honka on the team. After getting scratched for the final 35 games of the 2018-19 regular season, Honka did not sign a qualifying offer with the Stars and returned to Finland to play the 2019-20 season. (from ‘Stars unsure of defenseman Stephen Johns’ future following postseason run,’ Dallas Morning News, 10/10/2019)
It seemed like that would have been that. Except on Oct. 30, the Stars signed Honka to a new, one-year contract with an AAV of $700,000. It seems unlikely that the former first-round pick will usurp any Dallas staples like Heiskanen or Klingberg. The Stars have also signed another right-defenseman in Mark Pysyk, so the battle will be tough once again for Honka.
Stephen Johns: Sometimes If You Love Something You Have To Let It Go
One defenseman that might not be battling for a spot anytime soon is Johns.
The fan favorite has been a reliable presence on the blue line since being traded from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 (the deal that also brought Patrick Sharp to Dallas). Johns is more of a defensive defenseman than Klingberg or Honka. In his two complete seasons with the Stars, his play became calming for a team that is trying to brand itself as a shutdown, defensive powerhouse.
Unfortunately, Johns’ career took a sharp turn with an unassuming hit in a March 2018 game against the Minnesota Wild. Johns suffered the fourth concussion of his career, with three of those concussions coming in the previous six months. He ended up sitting out all of the 2018-19 season with post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic headaches.
For Johns, it went much farther than headaches. He told Sean Shapiro of The Athletic:
“I wasn’t really eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t doing anything. … It took me a long time to escape that cycle of thinking those horrible things.”FROM ‘‘OUR SON WAS GONE’: HOW THE STARS’ STEPHEN JOHNS FOUND HIS WAY BACK TO THE NHL’, THEATHLETICNHL — 6/23/20
In total, Johns missed 22 months. He made his NHL comeback on January 18, 2020, against the Wild and ended up playing 17 games before the pandemic ended the season early.
When the playoffs began in August there wasn’t much talk about Johns’ status. He finished out the season strong, playing over 16 minutes in his final game. In fact, he skated in the Stars’ first four playoff games in Edmonton.
However, after the first game against the Calgary Flames in the first round, Johns was absent from the Stars roster for the rest of the playoffs. In true playoff fashion, no reason was given at the time expect ‘unfit to play’. After the Stars lost the Final, when going over all injuries sustained by players, Dallas GM Jim Nill revealed that Johns pulled himself out of the playoffs. Nill said the defenseman felt “uncomfortable” and they left it at that.
So what is Johns’ status? He is currently still under contract with Dallas for another season and the organization is fully behind him and his recovery. However, it’s clear that they aren’t rushing him back, an extremely good and often too rare thing in sports.
If you are one of the other eight defensemen the Stars have signed for the 2020-21 season it’s looking like there will be a spot open to fight for.
What is the Defense Going to Look Like?
Let’s be clear, barring an enormous change (and possibly the expansion draft), the top four defensemen for the Stars are set. Klingberg and Esa Lindell will continue as the top pairing, followed by Heiskanen and Jamie Oleksiak. That leaves Honka, Johns, Pysyk, Andrej Sekera, and Taylor Fedun. Five players for two spots.
Sekera is probably the most secure bet being the only left-hander in the mix, and also the most grizzled of the vets. If we count Johns out, at least for the start of the season, that leaves Fedun, Pysyk, and Honka. Briefly, Pysyk is an interesting case because he has spent some of his time in the NHL playing at right-wing which could be a plus for putting him in, in the name of versatility.
However, considering the Stanley Cup Final run the Stars put together in 2020, Fedun was a solid addition to the team and is definitely the frontrunner for the final defensive spot.
Then again, depending on how training camp is done in the age of coronavirus, a lot could change. Honka seems ready to show he deserves a spot in the NHL, even with a bit of a lackluster season in Finland last season, and should be highly motivated to impress head coach Rick Bowness. (from ‘Stars unsure of defenseman Stephen Johns’ future following postseason run,’ Dallas Morning News, 05/14/2019)
Of course, defensive pairs thrive on chemistry just as much as forward lines do so if Bowness wants a lefty and righty as his final pair it will really come down to who plays better with Sekera.
One thing is certain though, the Stars want to continue boasting a strong defense-forward style and will pick their players with that in mind. Lucky for them, the core four aren’t likely to change anytime soon. This leaves the battle for the third pairing an interesting case.