Upon further review, maybe Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill did know what he was doing on the night of September 19, 2022 when he traded a first round and possible third-round selection to bring in a defenseman some considered too soft to play in the NHL. During a short sample size, it looks like highway robbery.
Life comes at you fast sometimes. Occasionally it leads to a place where you can thrive. Case in point, Dallas Stars Defenseman Nils Lundkvist. Just six weeks ago, the 22-year-old was back in Sweden wondering where his career was headed. A rough rookie season in North America culminated in a demotion to the AHL and acrimony with the New York Rangers front office. Lundkvist wasn’t going back to the Big Apple and had no idea if he was going to play in North America at all this year.
Now, with the injury to Miro Heiskanen, the young defenseman is a top pairing blue-liner for the Stars quarterbacking the top power-play unit. In two games filling a big pair of shoes, err… skates, Lundkvist has seen his Time-On-Ice jump nearly four minutes per game to 20:48. His offensive prowess was a given, but any perceived weakness on the back end has yet to become an issue.
“He's been great defensively. He's not a big guy but he's fearless. He takes great angles. He defends with his feet,” said Dallas Stars Head Coach Pete DeBoer. “If you're gonna play at that size in the NHL, your best defense is getting the pucks first and letting your puck movement defend for you by not getting pinned in. I think he's been exceptional for a young defenseman back there. He's eaten pucks when he's had to block shots. He's dug in and battled the guys bigger and heavier than him when he's had to. I've been really impressed with his commitment there.”
Fearless?? Battled bigger guys?? Blocked shots?? This can’t be the same player called undersized and soft by some NHL scouts back on the east coast. It is the same name, but not the same player. Maybe in his first go-round in smaller North American rinks, Lundkvist learned a thing or two and has evolved as an all-around player.
Last night against Washington on the first shift, Dylan Strome took an extra step to hit Lundkvist as he played the puck in the Stars zone. No effect on the young Swede’s game. Nils repeatedly jumped into the play without hesitation. His first period slapshot was deflected by Jason Robertson for what turned out to be the game winning goal. In the second period, he joined an odd-man rush only to be denied by the blocker of Darcy Kuemper on a spectacular save. His defense was sound and blended well with his partner, veteran Ryan Suter.
If there are any questions as to mental toughness, Saturday’s game should be an interesting barometer. The New York Rangers make their only visit of the season and there should be a decent amount of chatter. There are always two sides of the story to any break-up and the Rangers version isn’t pretty. The narrative being a former 2018 first-round pick, who turned his back on the organization after refusing to earn his way into the line-up based on performance. Can Nils drown out the noise and any challenges from his former teammates? Tomorrow, we shall see.
Lundkvist has only played 33 NHL games and if he continues to progress, this will be a crowning achievement for the Stars front office. Right-handed, offensive-minded defensemen who can handle their own end are hockey’s version of the unicorn. Nils is only one month into his Dallas career but looks like a future building block for the blue-line. From the European scouts who believed in Lundkvist, to the front office that pulled the trigger on the deal, their probably won’t be any gloating. For the moment, no one could blame them for a big collective, “I told you so.”