The Rapid Rise of John Klingberg

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The offense was expected to translate for John Klingberg. When the Dallas Stars called him up from the AHL on November 10th of 2014, the Stars’ front office hoped they were installing a mobile, right-handed defenseman into the lineup. If the 22-year-old could move the puck and chip in some offense, the team would survive his learning curve on defense. No wonder historians say history is fortuitous. Dallas unexpectedly triggered a supernova.

Nearly a year later, the former fifth-round pick is tied for the lead in points among defensemen. Klingberg is averaging 23 minutes a game and is quarterbacking the Stars’ power play, second best in the league. And this past offseason, Klingberg inked a seven-year contract extension that is immediately looking like a bargain.

Number one defensemen don’t knock down the door unannounced, especially with the amplified glare that the Internet provides. It appears that Klingberg’s experience playing professionally in Sweden as a teenager acclimated him to the pace and rigor of high-caliber hockey. When he came to North America, he exceled with the Texas Stars, the Stars’ AHL affiliate, and when he was called up, he quickly was assigned more (and more) responsibility. By the end of last season, he finished on the top pair and was shepherding the man advantage. Klingberg finished fifth in the Calder Trophy voting last season in a stacked rookie class, and his progression this season is moving rapidly. So what makes him so valuable to the Stars’ defensive group? It starts with Klingberg’s composure with the puck.

The most creative players in the NHL either want to move a step faster than their opponents or they want to outwait them. In an Occam’s Razor sort of way, this makes sense: if a player is moving in lockstep with his adversary, the probability of him succeeding is low. Teammate Jamie Benn is a master of suspending his offensive actions. Benn will lug the puck into the offensive zone, stickhandle through a defender, and drag the puck toward the shooting angle he wants. Then, he will wait an extra half-second if he can until the shooting lane appears or the goaltender commits.

Klingberg has that same patience. Watch this power play goal against Pittsburgh.

A failed clearing attempt by Kris Letang ends up on Klingberg’s stick. Klingberg backpedals and moves laterally, raising his stick to signify a shot and then bringing it to the ice, enabling him to cleanly circumvent Pascal Dupuis after receiving the puck a few feet from the boards. After Klingberg walks around Dupuis, he accelerates into the real estate right at the top of the left circle and fires a shot top right corner, the exact spot Benn was eclipsing as a screen. Deft footwork and puck-handling are two characteristics also at play here, but Klingberg’s ability to delay and buy an extra half-second is central to his knack for creating space.

On Monday, Dallas lost against the Maple Leafs, but on the Stars’ only goal, Klingberg was a factor, albeit in a different zone. Klingberg retries the puck with Maple Leafs forward Daniel Winnik hot on his tail. As Klingberg curls with the puck toward the boards, the Maple Leafs’ F2 comes crashing in, but Klingberg is able to shovel the puck past the forecheck and onto the blade of teammate Patrick Sharp. When Sharp moves it to Tyler Seguin, who is located in the center of the ice, the Stars effectively executed a promising transition. They put their two top forwards, Seguin and Benn, in space with speed through the neutral zone. Benn proceeds to deposit the puck in the back of the net, but the Dallas’ zone exit ignited that scoring chance.

In the same game, Klingberg featured in a cool play with Seguin in the offensive zone. Seguin wins the faceoff, and abruptly swings behind the net. The puck comes back to Klingberg on the successful draw, and he blows past Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul and scurries with the puck down low toward the opposite faceoff dot. By shifting the numbers for the Stars, Klingberg draws defensive attention from multiple Maple Leaf skaters. Defenseman Morgan Rielly comes to help Lupul corral an attacking Klingberg. Meanwhile, Seguin has emerged from behind the net and is dashing up toward higher ice as Klingberg pulls Toronto’s manpower in his direction.

As the two cross paths, Klingberg dishes the puck to Seguin, who receives the pass and proceeds to curl up along the top of the left circle and whip a shot at net. Klingberg successfully created a pick and coveted separation for arguably the best sniper in the NHL. It wasn’t a goal, but Seguin’s shot did lead to a follow-up shot by Benn who was planted in the low slot. Finding scoring opportunities at even strength for the league’s deadliest duo is a good recipe for success, and Klingberg’s mobility and passing touch enabled the Stars to use some ingenuity in their faceoff plays.

At a young age and with less than 100 games of NHL experience, Klingberg clearly has an astute understanding for how to generate offense. He has high-end vision, which makes him a threat not just off the rush but even on neutral-zone regroups. His strong edgework and puck-handling ability make him dangerous when the Stars initiate the cycle. Klingberg also understands positional play. He knows when he needs to provide support, whether with a pinch in the offensive zone to keep territorial advantage, or by seizing a loose puck to catalyze a rush attempt, or by coming to help his center and defensive partner on an opponent’s overload scheme in the corner. Klingberg volunteers as a willing combatant below the goal line and in the blue paint. All these efforts are shift-to-shift pluses in the Stars’ night-to-night battles.

And for all the gushing about his offensive game, his defensive work might be the most improved area of his repertoire. Klingberg keeps a tight gap and is quite skillful at stabbing at the puck with a swift pokecheck before an entry is gained. Off the puck, he can establish inside position on a cutting opposing skater, making him extremely difficult to penetrate offensively.

The Stars are a top five possession team right now at 5v5, per, and Klingberg’s ability to protect the puck under heavy pressure from opposing skaters and make the right reads on breakouts (whether that be through the middle or along the perimeter) is outstanding. Klingberg has a +40 Corsi differential and +10 Scoring Chances differential, per, although Johnny Oduya and Jason Demers receive the toughest assignments. Still, Klingberg fends off opponents well. He uses his body and stick to deter and contain enemy puck-carriers, and his skating and anticipation allow him to make strong decisions to keep the puck in the Stars’ possession.

A defenseman of Klingberg’s skill set and consistency suddenly sprouting is unusual, which is what makes him worth celebrating. The Stars are imperfect, but Klingberg’s continued improvement intensifies their best strengths and diminishes their flaws. To wit, if the Stars have the puck much more than their opponent, the concerns over their team defense and goaltending are less daunting. The Stars’ franchise and their young defenseman are ascending. The question is how high they can reach.

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