Before reading any further, please keep in mind the Stars have played exactly 3 periods of pre-season hockey. There are more than two weeks to go until Opening Night and 6 more exhibition games to be played. Players will step up and others will be sent away. Defensive pairings will build trust and cohesiveness. That’s the nature of this time of the year.
A few days ago, I wrote that one of the interesting stories unfolding was the “log-jam” at defense. That may not be the correct analogy. This may actually be more a wide-open field than a tight competition. Let’s look at the scoresheet for the obvious. The pairing of Joseph Cecconi and Artem Grushnikov were on the ice for three of the four goals allowed. No big deal. At age 25, Cecconi will be a leader on the blue line at Cedar Park this year. At age 19, Grushnikov will be going back to the OHL, where his Hamilton Bulldogs team was runners-up for the Memorial Cup last June. The teenaged defenseman is learning where he stands in comparison to professional athletes and what needs to be done in order to get to the next level. Stars scouts really like the kid and believe in Grushnikov. If this pairing struggled a bit, so what?
HOWEVER…if the Stars were looking for either Thomas Harley or Nils Lundkvist to make an early statement, they might have to keep searching. Both young defensemen were paired with older, stay-at-home partners: Lundkvist with Esa Lindell, Harley with Jani Hakanpaa. But neither was able to capitalize on the opportunity to make a strong impression. Lundkvist and Lindell were -1 on the night. The young Swede showed some flashes of offensive ability but too often spent time pinned in his own end. The bigger Blues forwards were able to knock him off the puck and earn position in front of the net by winning physical battles. Harley and Hakanpaa did not have a lot of chemistry and misconnected on some plays leading to Blues opportunities. Harley did not make much of an impact on the offensive side either.
When a team is learning a new system, as the Stars are under Pete DeBoer, mistakes will be made during the process. Offensive zone mistakes can be frustrating while defensive mistakes wind up in the back of the net. At least at the start, veteran defensemen have the edge. Newly signed Colin Miller has played nearly 400 NHL games and has the experience of playing in a Stanley Cup Final. Joel Hanley has been steady as a Stars rearguard and also has the experience of action from Stanley Cup battles. While the Stars would like to have Harley or Lundkvist assert themselves and win a spot in the Top 6, nothing is guaranteed. After one game, it looks like Miller and Harley remain very viable options for the 5 and 6 spot. If that were to happen the chain reaction would be immense as Jim Nill does not want young prospects sitting in the press box. Harley and Lundkvist can be sent to the AHL without clearing waivers. That would leave the Stars needing a viable #7 who can be a healthy scratch yet be ready to play at a moment's notice. Will Butcher making the opening night roster is not as far-fetched as it may originally have seemed.
NHL Defenseman is the hardest position to develop. Not everyone can be a Miro Heiskanen or Cale Makar and immediately step in and make an impact. Just because you have a fast car and a license doesn’t mean you are ready to race in the Indianapolis 500. Just because you are a former First round pick with all the tools doesn’t mean an NHL spot is a given. In each scenario, there are things to be learned which allows you to trade paint with the big boys. This preseason there will be more opportunities for Lundkvist and Harley to step up and show out. On this night, the race for a defensive roster spot did not tighten, in actuality, it became more wide-open.