There were a couple of key factors at play behind the Stars’ decision to let John Klingberg walk in free agency.
For starters, Klingberg overplayed the market and effectively priced himself out of a return to Dallas. That’s why he ended up signing a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks and why he subsequently fired his agent.
But internally Dallas believed Klingberg’s departure had the potential to be addition by subtraction. Getting rid of Klingberg would remove the few remaining hurdles blocking Miro Heiskanen from taking complete control of a game, most notably on the power play. Important as the 30-year-old Swede was in Dallas, Heiskanen is that much more so. Putting the Finnish defenseman in position to be his best self—and become a true Norris Trophy contender—mattered more to Dallas’ future than what Klingberg could add if he returned in his old role.
The rest of the equation, however, was murky. While it has cleared up slightly at the season’s midway point, the right side of the Stars’ defense remains the biggest internal question about whether they truly check all the boxes of a Stanley Cup contender.
Outside observers share that concern.
I reached out to a trio of NHL scouts and asked them a very simple question: “What’s holding the Stars back from winning the Western Conference?” All three asked me some version of the same question in return: “After Miro Heiskanen, do you have enough?” They followed it up with one more inquiry: “Is there enough on the right side that it won’t be exposed in the postseason?”
The Stars won’t know for certain until May comes around. But right now, their best answer for the latter question is a surprising one.
Colin Miller was signed as a depth defenseman. That’s what he’s paid to be. Of the top-10 Western Conference teams by points percentage on January 12, only the Los Angeles Kings have a defenseman on their top pair making less against the cap than Miller’s $1.85 million (per the most recent depth charts from Daily Faceoff). And, at the time of signing, one could argue Dallas still overpaid for the 30-year-old, who was coming off some lean years in Buffalo. Aside from a two-year stint in Vegas, nothing in Miller’s history has ever suggested he has the true profile of an “offensive-minded defenseman.”
Despite all of that, Miller has been better than anyone—even Stars general manager Jim Nill—would have expected. At an age when Miller should be declining, he’s instead playing arguably the best hockey of his career.
Plus/minus isn’t a great day-to-day stat, but it does reflect player trends. So consider it an extremely positive sign when a player who has never had a plus season in his career, who was minus-35 net in his first five seasons, is rocking a plus-14 through 40 games in Dallas. Miller already has 23 individual scoring “chances for” at even strength, according to Natural Stat Trick. He had 13 in 38 games last season with Buffalo and just 15 in 48 games one season prior.
Why is it working thus far? I posed that question back to those scouts, even after they circled Miller’s position as a question mark for Dallas.
“It’s because of how he skates,” one told me. “He understands he’s a complementary piece and plays well off of Heiskanen. He can play with better players, which is an underrated skill sometimes. He’s not the defensive anchor; he doesn’t need to be. He’s just the support piece, and I think it’s hard for some players to understand that.”
“To be fair, it’s a good team, and he gets to play often with one of the top lines in hockey,” another scout said. “So take it with a bit of an asterisk, but he is part of the solution more than he’s ever a problem when I watch them. I just wonder how well it’ll hold up.”
And that’s the internal fear for Dallas—not only with Miller, but Nils Lundqvist, too. Are they big enough to handle the heavier forechecks? Against more physical, grinding teams, will they get bullied on the right side? Will it put too much pressure on Heiskanen? Will the Stars be forced to pair him with a more veteran lefty like Ryan Suter or Esa Lindell, which likely moves Heiskanen back to the right, thereby undoing some of the progress that made Klingberg expendable?
The Stars hope not, because Miller has helped unlock a little bit more of Heiskanen’s best. Suter and Lindell, when paired with Heiskanen, overly defer to one aspect of the game. Lindell plays it safe, while Suter tries to do more offensively. Miller, on the other hand, has demonstrated a willingness to be both the defensive safety net and a shooter, sometimes on the same shift. That gives the Stars’ top pair some “unpredictability,” as one scout pointed out, which lets the duo perform at a level that transcends pure talent.
It also provides the Stars more avenues to better themselves at the trade deadline. Going into this season, I would have expected Dallas to be mandatory shoppers at the trade deadline. I would have expected them to need another defenseman, not just want one, because the problem would be so acute that might jeopardize their playoff status.
Instead, Dallas’ success and Miller’s competence mean have enabled the Stars to approach the deadline as luxury shoppers. Instead of focusing on defense first and foremost, they can choose to pour resources into a top-six forward to play alongside Tyler Seguin, be it a Gustav Nyquist from Columbus or Andrei Kuzmenko from Vancouver (if Kuzmenko doesn’t sign long-term with the Canucks).
They could also opt against doing anything. Really. Jim Nill’s “I like where our team is at” line of thinking has been groan-inducing for the fan base before, but it’s more than OK to like where the team is at this season.
Miller is hardly the biggest reason why, but he is among them. He’s giving Dallas more than it bargained for in the very best way.
Sean Shapiro covers the Stars for StrongSide. He is a national NHL reporter and writer who previously covered the Dallas…