There has been no shortage of stories surrounding the Dallas Stars’ run to the Western Conference Final in these bubble playoffs. A primarily defensively minded team for the past couple of seasons despite a top-heavy roster with loads of elite-level skill, the Stars started off the post-season with non-stop scoring.
For a team that finished fourth-last in goals in the regular season, the Stars have caught fire in the playoffs, scoring five goals or more in seven games so far. Despite this scoring stretch, and despite talent like Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn up front, you still hear that the Stars are boring to watch.
Yet, the Stars are mid-range among the 24 teams that began the playoffs in expected goals against at even strength, so it isn’t as though they’ve locked things down to an extreme degree like the New York Islanders. Despite their 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the East final New York holds the best expected goals against in the playoffs at even strength with a flat two, compared to Dallas’ 2.61.
The Stars’ playing style may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but they haven’t looked like a defensive juggernaut by any means, so what should we be talking about? What’s the secret to their success this post-season?
The biggest reason they've found success in these playoffs might be that, despite having a defenceman as excellent as John Klingberg, he isn’t their top player on the back end anymore.
That’s Miro Heiskanen.
If you were to just look at the production stats, you might think Heiskanen is a forward. He has the same stat line as Nikita Kucherov with five goals and 16 assists for 21 points, though Heiskanen has played three extra games.
The 21-year-old Finn leads his team in scoring by six points, and leads the team in ice time by over a full minute per game. He takes an average of four more shifts than Klingberg each game, often on the penalty kill where he averages 2:10 per game compared to Klingberg’s eight seconds.
Heiskanen has rewarded his coach’s trust in him with… Well look.
In the regular season, Heiskanen’s impact on the Stars was very strong. Generally speaking, pushing the needle for your team by 3-4 per cent is around what top-end players are able to do in a large sample.
The one area where Heiskanen didn’t have a strong regular season impact was in slot passes, where he wasn’t as involved offensively as he was in other areas. Fast forward to the playoffs and Heiskanen has maintained his strong impact on shots overall, boosted his slot pass impact into the same area by creating more passes offensively, and he’s blown the doors off the building from the inner slot.
For most defencemen, the main impact they can have on inner slot shots is protecting the front of the net, blocking lanes and blocking shots, while recovering rebounds and winning battles to keep the most dangerous chances at bay.
It’s generally rare that a defenceman has a big offensive impact on inner slot shots, both because taking shots that close to the net carries a great risk for a blueliner should something go wrong, and because moving the puck North-South into the slot doesn’t have as big of an impact on creating good shooting opportunities as East-West from the perimeter, or from below the goal line up into the net front.
Some defencemen, like Roman Josi, do have a great impact on inner slot offence though, and it appears that’s who Heiskanen is channeling in these playoffs.
Heiskanen’s strategy has been relatively simple. He knows he’s better than almost everyone, so why not play extremely high event hockey and make sure you come out on top? In these playoffs, 80 per cent of the Stars’ inner slot shots on net at 5-on-5 have occurred while Heiskanen is on the ice. Yes, you read that correctly, 80 per cent!
On the flip side, 62.4 per cent of the inner slot shots the Stars have allowed in the same game state have happened while Heiskanen is on the ice, but the result is a completely absurd +21.4 per cent increase in inner slot shot share while Heiskanen is controlling play, compared to when he’s resting on the bench.
Without Heiskanen skating, the Stars are exactly the team that many have a perception of; a highly defensive one that doesn’t allow much from in tight, but also plays primarily a perimeter game on offence. That makes for some boring hockey, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what they become while Heiskanen is on the ice.
His dominant offensive presence at even strength would be enough on its own to put him in the conversation as one of the best defencemen in the league, and on top of that he’s one of the NHL’s top power play quarterbacks, leading all defencemen in controlled exits and entries on the power play in these playoffs. He creates tons of chances for his teammates.
As previously mentioned, Heiskanen is trusted to take secondary shifts on the penalty kill, which is not something often given to young offensive defencemen, but once again Heiskanen acquits himself well.
He isn’t as dominant there as he is with the puck on his stick, but he’s within the top-15 per cent of all defencemen in the playoffs in loose puck recoveries, defensive plays causing possession changes, and entry denial rate while shorthanded.
It’s been obvious from the moment he stepped into the league that Heiskanen was going to be special. How many players have a second shift in the NHL that looks like this for example?
But he has become more than simply an offensive weapon. He’s developing into an all situations force. He alone is worth the price of admission, you know, when we can go to games again.