Stars’ defensive core offers model for what Blackhawks are trying to build
The Hawks’ two-game series Sunday and Tuesday in Dallas will give them an upfront look at one of the NHL’s best defenses.
After several seasons of defensive ineptitude, the Blackhawks’ formula for future defensive stability finally has become clear.
With rookies Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin and second-year player Adam Boqvist — all former top-60 draft selections — the Hawks hope they can develop a mobile, puck-moving core that will succeed in today’s NHL.
Lucas Carlsson, who has looked poised in limited appearances, and yet-to-debut Alec Regula and Wyatt Kalynuk show promise as potential complementary pieces. Recent picks Alex Vlasic, Wyatt Kaiser and Michael Krutil might make an impact down the road.
Surrounded by a few versatile, experienced veterans in the right roles — perhaps even an existing one, such as Connor Murphy — the Hawks have the pieces in place to solve their defensive woes for the next few seasons.
Right now, however, coach Jeremy Colliton and general manager Stan Bowman only have to look at the Stars — the Hawks’ next series opponent — to find a model for that future lineup and a blueprint for how to get there.
‘‘Our coaching staff and the organization, we always had a lot of respect for how hard [the Stars] played and [how] they play a game that transfers to the playoffs,’’ Colliton said Saturday. ‘‘They have a lot more [quality] throughout their team.’’
Sunday in Dallas will be Hawks forward Mattias Janmark’s first game against his old team. He said he plans to ‘‘get a hit in’’ against former teammate and close friend Miro Heiskanen.
That won’t be an easy task. Heiskanen’s smooth stride and elite vision have made him one of the NHL’s most underrated players and the centerpiece of the Stars’ rock-solid defense.
Had the Stars translated their surprising Western Conference title run into a Stanley Cup title in 2020, Heiskanen likely would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. His 26 points — as a defenseman, don’t forget — in 27 postseason games cemented his superstar status.
John Klingberg and Esa Lindell are also terrific players. Unlike Heiskanen, the third overall pick in 2017, neither Klingberg (fifth round in 2010) nor Lindell (third round in 2012) was a top prospect. But the Stars carefully, patiently groomed them into workhorses.
Together, they might form the best trio of defensemen on any NHL team this season. All three average at least 22:49 of ice time and have helped the Stars to a 5-2-1 record so far.
‘‘They’ve got, clearly, some very skilled, dynamic defensemen,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘They’re great on the breakout, they’re great on the offensive blue line [and] they find ways to get pucks to the net.’’
If the Hawks can mold Mitchell, Boqvist and Beaudin into a comparable group — a daunting but plausible objective — they’d be in great shape.
Jamie Oleksiak (the 14th overall pick in 2011) didn’t grow into a first-pairing-caliber defensemen for the Stars, but he uses his 6-7 frame and more conservative style to complement those who did. His case offers another valuable lesson: Prospects don’t have to reach their ceiling to have value.
Jim Nill, the Stars’ GM since 2013, has surrounded his homegrown core with two well-traveled, adaptable veterans in Andrej Sekera and Mark Pysyk, although the former will miss the series against the Hawks while on the COVID-19 list.
In the pipeline, the Stars have another prospect with top-pairing potential in 2019 first-round pick Thomas Harley.
In the last three seasons, the Stars have ranked seventh, eighth and third in the NHL in expected goals against and have ranked almost as well in scoring chances allowed. They’re on a similar track this season: sixth in expected goals against and third in scoring chances allowed.
The Hawks’ hopes of molding their defensemen into a Stars-like cast will take considerable time, effort and good fortune. Even if everything goes right, doing so will take several seasons.
In the meantime, Hawks management can admire — and take notes on — the Stars’ defensive creation.