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Stars Gambled Big on Nils Lundkvist. Will It Pay Off?

Right-handed, skilled blue liners are the NHL’s version of the Unicorn. The Dallas Stars think they have found one in Nils Lundkvist. But will it pay off?

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Around hockey circles, Jim Nill is not known as a gambling man. Maybe it’s just the way he goes about his business,  maybe it’s from his background as a scout, but the Stars General Manager is known for keeping things close to the vest and making moves only after piles of data have been consumed and analyzed. Prospects are identified, then watched by numerous sets of eyes for several years in order to gain a consensus. Players who are liked by the scouting department are still scrutinized even after their draft years, because you can’t predict the future and there better be loads of intel, just in case an opportunity may arise. It’s a painstaking process that takes years of work and thousands of travel miles, but the end result is vital for teams pondering big-time decisions. The funny thing about player evaluations is opinions from team to team on any one player can be more polarizing than the current state of US politics. Which brings us to the shocking developments of earlier this week… the Stars trade for Nils Lundkvist.

 On paper, the 22- year-old Swedish Defenseman has all the makings of an elite prospect. A 1st round selection by the New York Rangers in the 2018 draft, Lundkvist is a dynamic offensive player.  He has an impressive international resume, representing Sweden at the U-18 World Championships, the World Junior Championships, and the World Championships.  At age 21, in his fourth year as a professional, Lundkvist won the Salming Trophy indicative of the best Swedish-born defenseman in the SHL. (The same league that has produced talented blue liners such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Victor Hedman, just to name two). 

But things did not go as planned during his first season in North America. After making the Rangers Opening Night roster, Lundkvist struggled, and 25 games into the season, was demoted to the AHL. The relationship with the Rangers front office soured. Lundkvist’s agent threatened to keep his client away from training camp and demanded a trade. Soon afterward, it was agreed that the best path forward would be with another organization. Dallas had not traded away a 1st round pick in 15 years. But were willing to pay that price plus either a 3rd or 4th round selection to get the deal done. The way the Stars see it, a 2023 first-round prospect would not be ready until at least 2026, but Lundkvist, at age 22, could be ready as soon as this year. It was a trade worth making and a new Star was on his way to Texas.

Now, this is where things get very compartmentalized, depending on your opinion of Lundkvist. The scouts I talked to agree on his offensive talent, mobility, and puck-moving skills. However, they say, his size and defensive play are a liability. On the East Coast, the storyline is that Lundkvist couldn’t cut it in the NHL, was sent to the AHL, and threatened his way out of New York. By getting a top pick and possibly a third-rounder as well, the Rangers got an incredible return for a player who was not going to contribute and had a bad attitude. One scout texted, “I can’t believe the Rangers got 1st round pick for that guy.” Another Eastern Conference scout said, “Lots of potential, but not sure he can handle the North American game.”. 

The Stars’ brain trust sees things much differently and believes Lundkvist will be a top pairing Defenseman in the very near future. Right-handed, skilled blue liners are the NHL’s version of the Unicorn. Lundkvist fits the bill. Dallas has had great success in developing European players and sees things much differently than the hockey experts on the  Eastern seaboard. Jim Nill believes what happened to Lundkvist last year is very similar to what Roope Hintz experienced during his assimilation to the North American game. Year One was a learning experience, but during the second year, things clicked for Hintz and he has been a force ever since. The people Jim Nill trusts to provide proper hockey intelligence believe world-class skills are evident and it’s just a matter of some coaching and patience before Lundkvist arrives in Dallas to stay. If they are correct, visions of a blue-chip blue-line led by Miro Heiskanen and Nils Lundkvist will be a reality for years to come. 

There are very few trades in hockey that work out as well as the Joe Nieuwendyk for Jerome Iginla deal where both teams wind up with exactly what they want.. Five years from now there will be a definite winner and loser in the saga of Nils Lundkvist. Will time show the Stars made the right call, holding on to their Big Three forward prospects while adding another top youngster who was on the verge of greatness, or will the Rangers be able to say they picked up two high-quality draft picks for a disgruntled skater who couldn’t earn his way onto their NHL roster?

Both teams have pushed their Lundkvist chips to the center of the table. Now it’s a matter of time to discover who walks away with the winning hand.

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