It’s been six years, but the Dallas Stars may have finally found someone to fill the shoes of Sergei Zubov. And Jim Nill wasted little time locking up the 22-year-old.
On April 17, the Stars signed John Klingberg to a seven-year, $29.75 million contract. While it may be a risk to sign a rookie with only 65 NHL games under his belt to such a long contract, Nill made the necessary and right move locking up the most exciting defensive prospect the Stars have seen in years.
Since Zubov left the NHL in 2009, the Stars have been looking for a smooth-skating, quick-thinking defenseman with great vision, elusive hands, crisp passing and the ability to quarterback the power play. Year after year, the Stars struggled with a lack of a true top defenseman. They just might have finally found one.
The Stars drafted Klingberg in the fifth round of the 2010 draft (131st overall). The slender Swedish defenseman seemed to be a bit of a project with some good upside because of his hockey sense and puck-moving skills. Since the 2011-2012 season, Klingberg played in the Swedish Hockey League, racking up 45 points in 91 games.
Hip surgery put a slight damper on his development and delayed a move to North America, but it was worth it in the end. He returned from his surgery to help lead Skelleftea to the league championship. He skated the next season with Frolunda and was one of the league’s best defensemen. He finished among the league leaders in points, power play points and ice time.
He impressed local fans with two solid training camps. Whether or not you intended to keep an eye on him, he caught your attention with his skating and passing. Klingberg showed vision and poise well beyond his years. Lindy Ruff even said he saw some similarities to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, one of the most electrifying offensive defensemen in the NHL.
Opportunity Comes Knocking
The stage was set. Klingberg was close to making the NHL. He just needed a chance.
The Stars had a full roster to start the season as is. Klingberg had yet to spend significant time on the smaller NHL ice, and he struggled in a few preseason games, so he didn’t make the big club out of training camp. Opportunity came knocking little over a month later.
The Stars called up Klingberg in early November after a horrible defensive start to the season. The Stars allowed 49 goals in the 14 games prior to his call-up. The Stars traded Sergei Gonchar to the Montreal Canadiens on November 11, opening a spot for Klingberg in the lineup, and he never looked back.
Bringing up Klingberg provided a fresh face with some intriguing potential to Dallas, but most importantly, he provided a right-hand shot from the blue line. It had been nearly a full year since the Stars iced a right-handed defenseman, and that was only by a one-game plug-in, not a full-time Stars defenseman.
A Sight to Behold
At the time of his call-up, Klingberg registered 12 points in 10 AHL games, good for second among defensemen. He continued his hot streak in the NHL. After failing to tally a point in his first three games, Klingberg registered eight points in his next five games. He had some ups and downs, but overall, his play was jaw-dropping. Yes, jaw-dropping because the fan base hadn’t seen a combination of poise, craftiness, skating and passing like that from a defenseman in over six years.
While his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame doesn’t necessarily suggest he has filled out, he demonstrated his skills can make up for his lack of size as he continues to grow. His right-handedness helped the Stars with outlet passes, defensive zone plays, and an added element on the power play. As almost any rookie defenseman, Klingberg had his defensive struggles, but he seemed to take it all in stride as he improved throughout the season.
Beyond a Rookie
Klingberg finished the season as far-and-away Dallas’ best defenseman. It’s one thing to get out to a fiery start, but he didn’t have a severe drop-off, and he improved his overall play over the rest of the season. Despite his lack of size, draft ranking and smaller ice experience, Klingberg managed to put himself in the Calder conversation. Defensemen don’t usually win the Calder (only one has since 2005-2006), but he kept his name in the conversation by challenging Florida’s Aaron Ekblad for the best rookie defenseman in the NHL.
Klingberg finished 7th in rookie scoring and played at least 11 fewer games than the six above him. He finished with 11 goals, 29 assists, 40 points, 32 penalty minutes, 98 shots, 12 power play points and a plus 5 in 65 games this season. He averaged 21:50 of ice time, third-most on the Stars. His 40 points were tied for 4th on the Stars. In 81 games, Ekblad registered 12 goals, 27 assists, 39 points, 32 penalty minutes, 170 shots, 13 power play points and a plus 12.
Stone. Gaudreau. Ekblad. Klingberg. Forsberg. Who the heck do I vote for in the Calder Trophy running? Can’t go wrong with any of them — Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) April 11, 2015
A Good Bet on the Future
Teams can’t afford to let someone like Klingberg get away, and Nill made sure he didn’t. Though the term may be debatable, Nill is banking on more good things to come from Klingberg. And that is a risk worth taking after seeing what he did in his rookie season. The young Swede is set to don victory green for the next seven seasons at an affordable $4.25 million per season. It will look like a bargain if Klingberg can duplicate or even improve his play in the coming years. His 40 points rank 26th in the league, and he played fewer games than all but two of those defensemen.
The Stars have a handful of promising prospects on defense that could lead the Stars to being a force to be reckoned with in the coming years with Klingberg leading the way. It’s tough to fill the shoes of a local legend, but after years of searching, the franchise may have finally found the next Zubov. For now, the Stars can revel in the fact that Klingberg helps take the franchise one step closer to the goal of being a perennial contender and hoisting the cup.
Mohammad received his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Texas at Arlington with a minor in English.