The Dallas Stars' focus in the off-season was improving on the defensive side of the puck. GM Jim Nill went out and added blueliner Johnny Oduya and goaltender Antti Niemi, and while both certainly help, it’s impossible to count out just how much John Klingberg has meant to the team.
Klingberg established himself among the elite young defensemen early on in 2014-15, his rookie season, and, despite playing just 65 games, finished with 11 goals and 40 points. But on the grander stage, Klingberg flew under the radar. Sure, those who paid attention to the Stars or were checking in on rookie scoring races knew where Klingberg stood, but the then-22-year-old didn’t get nearly enough praise last season.
Klingberg finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting, but it wouldn’t be hard to argue he had a better season than any of those who finished ahead of him, including winner Aaron Ekblad.
Eklbad scored 12 goals and 39 points in 81 games during the 2014-15 campaign while playing alongside puck-mover extraordinaire Brian Campbell for the Panthers. As for Klingberg, he was skating withAlex Goligoski, who is a stellar defenseman, but not as heralded as the veteran Campbell. But the biggest difference is that in Florida, Ekblad was given every opportunity to show his offensive side. The 18-year-old Ekblad started more than 40 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Klingberg, in Dallas, started less than 30 percent of his shifts in the opponents’ end. More than that, Klingberg also faced a much tougher quality of competition than Ekblad did.
Yet it was the Panthers defender who got the headlines. Ekblad more than earned his share of the headlines — he did have a great season in Florida — but Klingberg’s performance was remarkable for a rookie, especially one who wasn't on the opening-day roster for Dallas.
And that may have been the only thing holding Klingberg back from a better Calder voting result in 2014-15. As THN’s Jason Kay pointed out, it’s increasingly difficult for players who miss close to 20 games to win the award. Since expansion, the most games missed by a player who won the Calder was 19, when Steve Vickers won the award in 1972-73. Klingberg missed three games due to an upper-body injury and missed the first 14 games of the year because he was playing in the AHL. Hard to imagine that now.
But not winning the Calder has been of no consequence to the Stars young blueliner. If anything, it may have put a chip on Klingberg's shoulder because in 2015-16 he hasn’t slowed one bit.
This season on a Stars team that has improved defensively, Klingberg is among the league’s elite in a number of advanced statistical categories at 5-on-5. When it comes to puck possession, Klingberg has a 54.3 shot attempts for percentage, the 11th-best mark of the 55 defensemen to play at least 200 minutes this season. Klingberg has also been on the ice for 14 Dallas goals for and only 10 against, a goals for percentage of 58.3 percent, the 16th-best percentage of those same 55 blueliners. And his ice time alone is impressive. As a sophomore, coach Lindy Ruff trusts Klingberg enough to give him more than 23 minutes of ice time per night.
Because of Dallas’ improved possession — the Stars were 10th in shot attempts for percentage in 2014-15, but fifth so far this campaign — Klingberg has been able to get more favorable zone starts. So far this season he has started roughly 33.5 percent of his shifts in the opponents’ end and it has shown up on the score sheet.
Through 13 games this season, Klingberg has been an offensive dynamo, scoring two goals and 13 points — tied with veteran Andrei Markov for tops among defenseman — and has looked every bit the star blueliner Dallas needed. Best of all, though, this is Klingberg’s sophomore season, and with how his development has gone, it seems impossible to imagine Klingberg slowing at any point.
Klingberg isn’t an all-situations player and rarely sees time on the penalty kill, but the definition of what makes a great defenseman is changing, and if Klingberg can maintain his scoring pace he could be a real threat for Norris Trophy honors. Klingberg, like fellow Swede Erik Karlsson, is part of the new-school, offensive-minded defenseman making waves in the league. In the seasons Ottawa’s Karlsson and Montreal’s P.K. Subban won their Norris Trophies, which have all come within the past four seasons, neither averaged more than 40 seconds per game on the penalty kill.
There’s a reason why Dallas inked Klingberg to a monster seven-year, $29.75-million deal in the off-season, and it’s because he’s every bit the star defenseman the Stars were looking to build their blueline around. Eventually, if Klingberg’s game keeps progressing, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Norris comes calling.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice.com)