After being tasked with a bigger role this season Stars defenseman John Klingberg got off to a terrible start. He took it upon himself to get out of his head and find a groove with his new partner.
The Air Canada Centre’s visitor dressing room drew the kind of crowd the Dallas Stars don’t encounter too often. Reporters scurried and swarmed, searching for space, sometimes caught sitting in arriving players’ stalls. The players unloaded their gear and held court after Tuesday’s morning skate, but two stalls stayed empty far longer than anyone else’s. John Klingberg and Esa Lindell lingered on the ice, then lingered some more.
It wasn’t merely a case of clichéd “last player off the ice” hockey machismo. Klingberg and Lindell had extra work to do. It’s taken a lot of sweat to get their play on track during Dallas’ shockingly mediocre season.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one reason why the Stars have slipped from winning the Central in 2015-16 to fighting for a wild-card berth in the West, currently five points out. The truth is there are many. The Stars got blitzed with injuries to their forward corps in October and stumbled to a 9-10-6 start in their first 25 games. Goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi carried over the mediocre play that sank Dallas in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
The other thing that went wrong started in the summer. It wormed its way into Klingberg’s brain and wouldn’t stop gnawing at him.
He was fresh off a banner sophomore season in which he exploded for 58 points as key member of the NHL’s highest-scoring team. He thrilled spectators with his ability to join the rush. He was made for 3-on-3 overtime along with superstar forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Klingberg finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting and appeared on his way to an elite career, sprinkled with All-Star Games.
OK, so it technically wasn’t summer when everything changed, but June 16 was close enough. The Stars dealt away the rights to pending unrestricted free agent Alex Goligoski, who had spent parts of six seasons as a top-pair blueliner in Dallas and just happened to be Klingberg’s partner. Free agency arrived July 1, and out went veteran Stars blueliners Jason Demers and Kris Russell, too. Klingberg went from rising youngster to the team’s second-longest-tenured defenseman. The Stars still had Johnny Oduya and Jordie Benn and added veteran UFA Dan Hamhuis, but they decided to deploy a primarily peach-fuzzed group in 2016-17, with some combination of Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak, Julius Honka, Patrik Nemeth, Lindell and Klingberg. And Klingberg immediately felt the pressure rising.
“I always think about that summer,” he said Tuesday. “I thought, ‘The season’s starting with a different D-corps, and I’m going to be one of the only guys who actually has a couple seasons here,’ and that’s never a good thing. You want to build as a player, as a guy in the locker room, be a guy who steps up when the team needs you, but if you’re trying to do too much out there, it’s so weird. It has nothing to do with not trying. You’re trying too hard.”
That’s evidently what happened. Klingberg got off to a disastrous start in 2016-17. His possession numbers, especially on the defensive side of the puck, were horrible. He hemorrhaged shot attempts while paired with Hamhuis. Klingberg ended up a healthy scratch twice during one 10-day stretch in November, albeit once because he missed a team meeting. Some players shrug their shoulders and don’t offer an explanation as to what’s going wrong. Maybe it’s the bounces, right? But Klingberg looks back on his first half and knows exactly what happened: he felt he had to be perfect. And he wasn’t the only one.
“We had a lot of injuries, and Me, Tyler and Jamie were still in the lineup and trying too much,” Klingberg said. “We got really frustrated with our own games, and that showed up a lot in a couple of losses. We were just too invisible.”
Klingberg then accurately pointed out Benn has gotten his game back on track in a big away, and so has Klingberg, at least on the offensive side of the puck. In his past 21 games, he’s racked up six goals, including two game winners, with 17 points while averaging more than 24 minutes a game. That’s the Klingberg who garnered Norris trophy buzz last year. What changed, then?
“At the start of the year, I was wanted to be ‘that guy,’ ” he said. “Then I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna try to sit back,’ and that didn’t work either. Then I tried even harder. Then I tried for a couple games in a row to let the game come to me, and I actually built a lot of confidence from that.”
Calming down and relying on his natural mobility and puck-moving skill seemed to work. So did finding a groove with his partner.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little weird that Alex was gone to start the year, but that’s something you’re gonna have to deal with,” Klingberg said, and he’s done just that. Coach Lindy Ruff played with his defense pairings earlier in the year but has settled on Klingberg and Lindell. Now that they’ve had 30-plus games together, they’re harmonizing much better. And Lindell is no slouch. He’s a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder with a nice mix of offense and physicality in his game, tabbed as one of the Stars’ better blueline prospects over the past couple years. Lindell said Tuesday a brief demotion to the AHL in November let him play some big minutes and seriously boosted his confidence.
And, as indicated by the long morning skate Tuesday, the pair is studious. They watch a lot of video footage together, Lindell says, and there’s no standoffishness with Lindell, a Finn, and Klingberg, a Swede. Lindell says the Stars’ European players tend to stick together. And he and Klingberg communicate well.
“We both can skate and play with the puck, so we work on getting a pass to the first forecheck guy together – small plays,” Lindell said.
Most of the talk happens mid-game, Klingberg explained. They analyze what happened between shifts, trade their thoughts and even enlist assistant coach James Patrick for his quick input. If they identify a defensive-zone problem, Klingberg says, their goal is to eliminate it the very next shift.
And while we still see bumps in the road like Saturday’s loss to Chicago, the pair has progressed. Klingberg, who was a strong Corsi guy last season, had an uncharacteristically weak 5-on-5 Corsi mark of 47.39 at the end of November this season. That included a putrid Corsi Against per 60 of 62.55. He was a revolving door early in the year. Since December 1, he’s an even 50 percent in 5-on-5 Corsi. That’s not earth-shatteringly good, and he’ll never be an elite shutdown blueliner, but he’s trending the right way.
Klingberg and Lindell remain a work in progress, no doubt. They still allow too many shot attempts. An excellent, thorough analysis on the Stars blog Defending Big D illustrates that Klingberg and Lindell have been entrusted with too much too soon, particularly Lindell. And, as that article suggests, Klingberg is a “high event” defenseman at both ends of the ice. But they’re still just 24 and 22, respectively. It looks like the Stars will have to move mountains to make the playoffs at this point, especially when they’re still riddled with injuries, but Klingberg and Lindell remain something to get excited about in the long term. Their sample size together remains small.
“Our vision for them is to be the 1-2 defensemen for us,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “With Esa, I know that’s a lot to put on a young defenseman, but we feel he really complements the way John plays. He’s a real strong defender, probably one of our strongest defenders when it comes to physical play. And when you have a guy like John who can get up ice, and Esa has a little bit of offense in him too, it has the making of a pair that can play against anybody.
“They’re mobile. We like what they’ve done. They’ve had their ups and downs, but for the most part they’ve gotten themselves in a pretty good place.”
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