Editor’s note: This story originally posted May 10.
The 2018-19 season offered Julius Honka plenty of chances to be resentful or bitter, angry or annoyed.
The former first-round pick and Stars defenseman could have been turned off by being a healthy scratch in the final four months of the season, having not played a game after Jan. 15. He could have sulked when the Stars acquired Jamie Oleksiak to man the blue line, or when Dallas traded for Ben Lovejoy. When Honka sank below Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley and Gavin Bayreuther and Dillon Heatherington on the depth chart, he could have pouted.
But Honka didn’t turn negative.
“I want to look at it in a positive way,” Honka said during exit interviews Thursday. “It’s not the stuff anybody wants, but I think I survived pretty good. The shape I’m at, all the work I’ve been doing the whole year, I feel pretty good and pretty good about myself. Have the mind-set to keep improving, all those bag skates and everything.”
What now for Honka?
The 23-year-old is a restricted free agent this summer and is young and talented enough to draw at least marginal interest from other teams.
“We’re going to sit down over the summer now and we’re going to decide is he part of this group or is he an asset to go get something else?” Stars general manager Jim Nill said. “That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
Honka finished the season with 29 games played and four assists, and was solely a practice player as the Stars advanced to the second round before a loss in Game 7 to St. Louis. After each practice and morning skate, Honka would stay afterward for extra work and skating. But after he played 10 minutes, 25 seconds against Tampa Bay in the season’s 47th game, Honka didn’t get back in the lineup.
In October and November, Honka played in 18 straight games, including an abbreviated look in the top-four after John Klingberg broke his hand. Honka was coupled with Esa Lindell on the top defensive pairing during November, presented with a chance to impress Jim Montgomery and the coaching staff.
“He had that opportunity with Klingberg hurt, he was in the top-four for I don’t know how many games,” Montgomery said. “This is a tough league, and you earn what you get. Julius is a talented young player, good person. We expect him to be good for us, I’m talking next year.”
“The tough situation with a young player, especially Julius Honka, is when I hire the coaches, they’re hired to win games,” Nill said. “You get to the NHL and it’s not a developmental league. They go into games and they have to put the guys out there they think they can win with at that moment. Julius had his chances at times, didn’t quite grab it.”
Honka can be a polarizing figure among the fan base. Some factions support Honka’s positive possession numbers (shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals). Others trust that three coaching staffs have struggled to find a place for the high-risk defenseman in the lineup.
At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Honka is undersized for a traditional defenseman, a trait that is slightly offset by his agile skating but something that could have prevented him from seeing the ice after the losses of physical defensemen Marc Methot and Stephen Johns. (Although Fedun and Hanley are similar sizes to Honka.)
“All of a sudden, you lose Methot and you lose Johns, you don’t have that size,” Nill said. “How many smaller guys can you put out there? Julius, it’s a tough situation. The coaches know that. But in the end, I give them the responsibility to win games, and they’ve got to make decisions who’s got to be out there.”
Honka said he hadn’t discussed his future with Nill yet, but he “would be happy to play here and whatever the situation is.”
“I’ve been here a couple years now and like it,” Honka said. “It would be fun to keep going. The environment, you kind of know and you’ve been learning for a long time. It’s kind of like the bottom is there. Just have to build on it.”
What kind of return the Stars could get for Honka is a bit unknown. Not many first-round defensemen are traded before they turn 24. Of those traded, many are the centerpiece of the trade (Erik Brannstrom in the Mark Stone deal, Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin, or Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen).
When the Stars traded away Oleksiak last year at 24, they received a fourth-round pick. When Montreal traded away Nathan Beaulieu in 2017 at 24, it received a third-round pick. When Florida traded away Erik Gudbranson in 2016 at 24, it received Jared McCann in return.
But Oleksiak, Beaulieu and Gudbranson all had more extensive NHL rÃ©sumÃ©s than Honka does with 87 career NHL games.
“Like I’ve been talking with the team and all the coaches and other players and family, in life, there’s sometimes things you can’t really control,” Honka said. “You just have to keep yourself positive in mind-set, keep ready and you’re going to get rewarded at some point. This was one of those years, can’t really do anything. Just work hard, and do your best and see how it is.
“I still think I can be happy about myself. All the work and stuff I did this year, it’s going to help me in the future for sure. One hundred percent sure about that. Sometimes, you have to admit it and just keep working hard. It’s just what it is sometimes.”