LOS ANGELES – For a long time, the NHL couldn’t quite figure out John Klingberg.
Teams were mesmerized by the puck skills of the Dallas Stars defenseman and Klingberg took advantage with a strong stretch early in his career. But late last season and into early this year, teams got a grip on how to play the 24-year-old Klingberg, which led to a sluggish start for the offensive-minded blue liner in 2016-17.
“A lot of times his puck play is so good, I think the good coaches will say, ‘don’t even look at that, take him out of the play every time.’ I think he had a hard time with that in the beginning,” Stars analyst Craig Ludwig said.
But just as it appeared teams had solved Klingberg, the young blue liner has learned how to adjust his game and counterpunch. This has led to a bumpy evolution in 2016-17 for Klingberg that can hopefully prove rewarding in the long run for the Swede.
“I’ve started realizing what they try to do against me and I’m going to have to find different ways playing a better game,” Klingberg said.
Last season, Klingberg was a revelation for the Stars, and a key component in their attack that used an up-tempo pace to win the Central Division. His 58 points in 76 games ranked fifth amongst all defensemen and his plus-22 rating ranked sixth.
Klingberg also was an excellent puck possession player with a plus-5.32 adjusted 5-on-5 CF% Rel and a 55.81 adjusted 5-on-5 CF%. This built on a rookie season where Klingberg had 40 points in 65 games played.
But a lot of those lofty numbers were put together during the early part of Klingberg’s season when he had 38 points in his first 43 games. As the year dragged on his numbers dropped with 20 points in his final 33 games. When the playoffs came, Klingberg struggled with four points in 13 games and a minus-5 rating.
Instead Klingberg struggled to try to find the right complement on defense and eventually the team felt the need to take action to prevent him from falling further into bad habits.
On Nov. 21, the Stars scratched Klingberg for a game against the Minnesota Wild after he missed a team meeting. Then on Nov. 29, Klingberg was a healthy scratch against the Detroit Red Wings. He had just 11 points in his 22 games and his puck possession numbers had dropped considerably to a 46.91 adjusted 5-on-5 adjusted CF% and minus-1.21 adjusted 5-on-5 CF%, Rel.
Coach Lindy Ruff admitted the decision was somewhat of a risk – just because he didn’t know if Klingberg would use this as motivation. When a coach scratches a star player the choice can either alienate him or ignite him.
“I know he was upset, very upset with it. I think you want to see what the response is,” Ruff said. “We had given up a lot of breakaways and odd-numbered rushes. We were playing pretty loose and his game was pretty loose. I know he’s a lot better defender than that and I think he has really played well now for a good period of time.”
Fortunately for the Stars, Klingberg took the challenge of the benching to work harder on his preparation and try to figure out how teams were playing him differently. In his next 17 games, he notched 11 points, including eight in his last 10.
Klingberg holds a minus-2.87 adjusted 5-on-5 CF% rel, which is worse than it was before his benching, but his adjusted 5-on-5 CF% has improved to 48.28.
“I wasn’t happy about (being scratched), but that’s how hockey is,” Klingberg said. “(Lindy is) the boss. He’s the coach so he decides. Honestly I wasn’t happy about it. I think I could battle through it but that’s how it is sometimes. I was just going to have to come back stronger in the games after, so I think that’s where it started as well, coming out of the slump.”
The Stars also believe Klingberg has figured out some better symmetry with defense partner Esa Lindell. This has enabled him to move past any inconsistencies as he tried to learn to play without Goligoski.
“I think now with Esa it has been really good,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “They seem to kind of feed off each other. Esa has been really good too. Smart player. Very steady, predictable so I think that’s good too with the kind of style Klingberg plays that it’s a little bit more untraditional in a way, which we want him to play. That pair has been working good.”
The key really for Klingberg is to keep evolving as the NHL continues to change around him and teams figure new strategies to shut him down. It’s going to be a constant process in his career, but he now seems up to the challenge.
“He’s obviously a top defenseman in this league,” captain Jamie Benn said. “We need him to be on top of his game each and every night to really take over games like he can and you’re starting to see it lately for us.”
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