Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg sensed opportunity.
With two Minnesota Wild players tired after pressing the play in the offensive zone in American Airlines Center last Saturday, Klingberg used his powerful skating stride to join Tyler Seguin up ice in overtime.
He blew up the right wing, presented himself in the Wild’s zone, took a Seguin feed and buried a chance past Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
Klingberg had been a known quantity in Dallas for quite some time. But it was that game – where he scored one goal and added two assists in 23:18 of ice time – when he started entering the NHL awards conversation for this year.
“He does stuff you can’t teach. It’s just their God-given talent. He has that ability to make some plays under duress where other guys don’t have that vision or don’t have that niftiness to make that type of play,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “You can get excited about a game or two but when you’ve done it over a segment of time here now, you really feel that he’s a special player.”
While Seguin, Jamie Benn and the rest of the Stars’ forwards get much of the credit around Dallas’ rise to the top of the Central Division, Klingberg’s offensive game has vaulted the team to the NHL’s elite. Klingberg ranks fourth in the NHL with 20 points in 18 games, and first amongst defensemen.
He’s a world-class talent – and one who is home-grown. A former forward, the 23-year-old Klingberg was a fifth round pick by Dallas in the 2010 NHL Draft. He’s also locked into a reasonable seven-year contract worth a total of $29.75 million.
“Any time, from an organizational standpoint when you can find guys after the first couple of rounds who can come in and have an impact like this and be a huge part of the team for years and years like he’s going to be, those are the players that are going to push your team to the next level,” defense partner Alex Goligoski said. “I mean as far as last year and this year, they maybe weren’t completely sure what they had with him or no one knowing much about him. When you get a contribution like that, it’s huge."
Klingberg is part of a new breed of offense-minded defensemen who attack from the blueline area and drive possession when they’re on the ice 5-on-5. They’re essentially forwards who play defense.
According to War on Ice, Klingberg’s 5-on-5 CF% is at 53.11. His CF% relative 5-on-5 is plus-1.25, meaning his team possesses the puck more when he’s on the ice than off the ice.
This is a tough task, considering Ruff has put Klingberg and Goligoski against the opposition’s top lines. Klingberg also averages 23:17 of ice-time per-game.
“His all-around game has been good. He’s sort of a guy that has been playing against all of the team’s top lines for the start of the season,” Ruff said. “We’ve given him the tough assignments for normally what people would classify as an offensive defenseman, he wouldn’t be getting those assignments.”
Last season, he put up similar possession numbers in a 65-game stint with the Stars – his rookie year. He had 40 points in the NHL after starting the season with the AHL’s Texas Stars.
“He’s a defenseman with tremendous vision. He’s a great puck-mover and sees the ice really well even from leaving the defensive zone,” Ruff said. “He quarterbacks the power play and can make plays in tight situations that maybe some other guys can’t.”
In the past, Klingberg’s high-level skill could have been a detriment towards picking up NHL hardware. He only played 14 seconds per-game on the penalty kill this season. By comparison, Los Angeles Kings blueliner Drew Doughty averaged 3:06 of PK time per-game, drives possession similarly, but has 11 points on the season.
But Ruff points out that’s more of a coaching decision, to try to more evenly distribute his ice time, rather than load up one player.
“He’s good enough to kill, we just don’t want him to right now,” Ruff said. “We have other defensemen we need to get ice time and we really don’t have him in that role. He can, we’ve used him there and we have no complaints with him there. We just feel that we have some other defensemen to get their minutes where we need them that penalty-killing has to become their specialty.”
Goligoski, who sees Klingberg from ice level every night, also has no problems with the Swede’s defensive game.
“I think that’s maybe more an easy thing to say for an offensive defenseman that ‘Well, he’s not that good defensively,’” Goligoski said. “But he’s as good defensively as anyone we have and he defends quick, he defends hard and the way he possesses the puck when he’s on the ice, he doesn’t need to defend much. His defensive game is very, very much above average.”
As far as the Norris Trophy, the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson has already broken the stigma of not giving the award to a player with big offensive numbers because he’s not built in the typical “all-around” blueliner mold. The years Karlsson has won the Norris, he's averaged 33 seconds per-game on the penalty kill.
Klingberg said he can try to use his skill to break up plays on the defensive end, just as he does to make them on the offensive side. This makes him an all-around talent, though not in the traditional sense.
“I know there’s going to be plays in the game where I can be creative defensively, too,” Klingberg said. “For me it’s to have a good gap, be close to the good guys because you know they can do something great with the puck. Just try to play as simple as possible.”
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