Stars have an elite defensive pairing, but keeping it together will be a collective effort



DALLAS — Miro Heiskanen’s return to the lineup for the Dallas Stars’ 4-3 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks was a welcomed sight. Based on recent comments from Stars head coach Pete DeBoer, Heiskanen was in consideration to return even sooner. To see him on the ice on Thursday night was expected.

Seeing Heiskanen skating next to Thomas Harley was a bit more surprising.

“Two guys that really think the game (and) move the same way,” DeBoer said. “They play a lot alike, high hockey IQs.”

DeBoer isn’t alone in seeing the similarities.

“He’s a great defenseman,” Heiskanen said of Harley. “Moves well, moves the puck well, really good on offense, but I think his defense is a lot better this year, too. Really good two-way defenseman. I see a lot of similarities with me, so it’s been great to play with him and he’s an interesting guy to follow.”

Against the Ducks, the young duo — Heiskanen, 24, and Harley, 22 — were impossible to miss. Their fingerprints were all over the game, saving goals early, as Harley did in the first period, and scoring them late, as Heiskanen notched the equalizer to send the game to overtime. Harley finished things off with a stunner in the extra period.

“He’s been great all year like that,” DeBoer said of Harley. “His ability to skate — I think he blew by everybody on the ice there from goal line to goal line — is pretty impressive for a young defenseman to skate like that.”

The numbers involving that pairing support everything the eyes observe. Heiskanen and Harley paired together makes for a lethal combination. According to MoneyPuck, coming into Thursday’s games, that pairing led the league this season in expected goals percentage at 72.1 percent (minimum 100 minutes), the only pairing in the NHL to be higher than 67 percent.

“I like the fact that they both think defense before offense,” DeBoer said. “They’ve got a good conscious defensively, but they also have the ability to get up in the play and recognize holes offensively and take advantage of that.”

Heiskanen and Harley are both natural left-handed shots. Although DeBoer would love to play all of his defensemen on their strong side, the current roster makeup requires Heiskanen to play on the right side because Harley, Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell take up slots on the left side. Heiskanen is the only one talented enough to play on either side and be similarly effective. It’s fair to wonder why Heiskanen has to accommodate the roster makeup, but that’s a conversation for another day, one that can be broached closer to the trade deadline, when possibility for change is on the table.

Right now, this is the Stars’ reality, and it’s not a bad one. There are worse pairings to have than… the most effective pairing in the entire league. This exact situation of Heiskanen and Harley being top-tier was true over a month ago, too, but the Stars were forced to go away from it. The question is, how long can the Stars maintain this setup this time? That question usually depends on how well the players in question play, but that’s not the case in this situation.

How long Heiskanen and Harley play together is dependent on the effectiveness of Nils Lundkvist and Suter.

In Heiskanen’s absence, the Stars were forced to play Lundkvist every night. Harley was a natural fit to play with Joel Hanley, given their chemistry together over the past year. Lindell and Jani Hakanpää have a ton of experience playing together, at even strength and the penalty kill, dating to last season and extending into this season.

That matched Suter, a left-shot, with Lundkvist, a right-shot. The results were… not bad.

According to MoneyPuck, the Lundkvist and Suter duo has the best expected goals percentage of any non-Heiskanen pairing on the Stars this season. That’s only one statistic, and there’s more to the evaluation, but the results were adequate.

A big part of that is giving credit to Lundkvist, who was able to advance his game to, at minimum, beat out Hanley in the lineup.

“He’s been solid,” DeBoer said. “His five-on-five game has been solid. He’s got a little more confidence with the puck; he’s shooting it when he should instead of passing up shots. But he’s been, I think the word for me is, solid.”

The Stars still want, and need, Lundkvist to be more than merely solid, but that will do for now. Lundkvist is weeks removed from not even being deemed a lineup option over a career No. 7 defenseman, so “solid” is a step in the right direction.

If Suter and Lundkvist are able to hang in there with Lindell and Hakanpää as pairings that can at least take turns being second-pairing caliber on a nightly basis, it has a direct result at the top of the lineup. The coaching staff is clearly comfortable with Lindell and Hakanpää playing together. If that is the team’s third pairing at even strength, and the duo eats up the bulk of the penalty-killing minutes, not only being effective but preserving the other four defensemen from those hard minutes in the process, then they’ve done their job.

Suter and Lundkvist have to do theirs and at least keep the ice neutral, if not tilt it in favor of Dallas.

“That pairing has done a good job over the last two weeks, with Miro out, of being solid,” DeBoer said. “They’ve got to continue to do that.”

That will allow the Stars to play almost half of the game with Heiskanen and Harley together, which is clearly a huge advantage for Dallas. If Lundkvist and Suter become a liability, individually or as a pairing, DeBoer is back in the same situation that wouldn’t allow him to keep Heiskanen and Harley together earlier in the season. The Stars can’t afford to get gashed for an entire duration of a pairing’s time on ice in a game, and they can’t shelter a pairing by essentially playing with four defensemen and over-taxing those guys.

DeBoer would be forced to salvage the situation by pairing Heiskanen with Suter and by making a nightly decision between Lundkvist and Hanley to be paired with Harley.

If the roster changes before the trade deadline, there can be another conversation, but in its current configuration, every decision and evaluation has to be geared toward making sure that Heiskanen and Harley are skating together.

“The thing I like about those guys, with both of their feet, they can play against anybody and keep position and not lose gap and find a way to be in the right spots,” DeBoer said. “Let’s face it, you look at the gauntlet of teams that we’re going to be facing here, potentially down the stretch and in the playoffs, you’re going against (Nathan) MacKinnon and (Connor) McDavid and (Jack) Eichel and (Mark) Scheifele and those type of guys every night. It’s a nice luxury to have.”

This is another juncture in which DeBoer’s method and demeanor deserve a lot of credit. The Stars built a decent cushion in the standings with a strong start to the season and then had to weather two significant injuries. Through all of that, DeBoer pushed the buttons to put the Stars in good position to win every night but he also has calmly tried out different combinations across the lineup.

The result is the lineup the Stars put on the ice on Thursday, which is a tweaked top line with Wyatt Johnston, a second line which has essentially been a de facto top line, and perhaps the most effective grouping the team has had on the back end all season, all with the starting netminder in net.

As is evident by DeBoer’s comments, with the season more than halfway over and the All-Star break imminent, it’s time to start looking at how things might look come playoff time. The trade deadline is still a cloud that looms large — there was no Max Domi or Evgenii Dadonov at this juncture last year, both key 2023 postseason contributors — but that’s a discussion for when the team gets there.

What the Stars know right now is that, barring good health, this is the roster that will be available come mid-April. It’s become increasingly obvious that in order to maximize the production on the blue line, Heiskanen and Harley have to be together.

(Photo of Miro Heiskanen: Jerome Miron / USA Today)





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