After 58 points in 76 games in the 2015-16 season, which was enough to reach top five among the best scoring defensemen in the NHL, John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars ended up at sixth place in the Norris Trophy Award voting. He was beaten by only one other Swede (Erik Karlsson) in that list, while names such as Victor Hedman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson appeared below him.
In other words, it is clear that John Klingberg has made quite the footprint in Dallas and the NHL. While being the sixth best defenseman in the league, however, he is not regarded as one of the seven best defensemen to represent Sweden in the World Cup this year.
The numbers don’t add up here. And of course, if you do the math, it is understandable that a lot of people were instantly puzzled when Klingberg was left out of his national team’s World Cup roster. Such an illogical decision by the general manager and head coach Rikard Grönborg, it may seem, even though it was solely based on the logic of building a hockey team.
Just to remind those who have forgotten, or inform those who don’t know, Sweden sends a defensive formation of Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks), Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings), Anton Strålman (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators) to the World Cup.
When looking at the names on paper, some of them undoubtedly appear as less prominent defensemen compared to Klingberg, and close to none of them can live up to his offensive reputation. However, they are rightfully saved by which role they have on the ice and of what quality they can deliver in that role.
Basically, the delicate, puck-skilled yet somewhat defensively flawed Klingberg didn’t compete with each defenseman that made the final roster. He competed with two of them, considering the variation of playing styles that a coach wants in a team, and that was Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. And to be honest, as of today, John Klingberg is a few steps behind those two players who could be the best in the world at what they do in their given roles. Karlsson is number one. And over the last three seasons, Ekman-Larsson has scored 21 game-winning goals, making him number one ahead of Tyson Barrie (Colorado Avalanche) and Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets) with 10 game-winning goals each.
It should also be noted that to be offensively involved in the Arizona Coyotes and in the Dallas Stars are two widely different things. Both impressive, of course, but the Stars have been one of the most scoring teams in the NHL over recent years. Meanwhile, the Coyotes have been on the other end of that table.
Loyalty a Factor?
There could, however, be another alternative reason behind Rikard Grönborg’s decision to leave John Klingberg at home. Although it may sound rather conspiratorial, the answer could be found in the World Championships that went down in May, when the Swedish team was still coached by the previous general manager, Pär Mårts.
At that time, Sweden had big hopes to recruit John Klingberg in the middle of the tournament after he was knocked out with the Dallas Stars in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But due to a minor injury, Klingberg couldn’t make it. Later on, when coach Grönborg held his press conference in Sweden, announcing the final World Cup roster, he spoke about the signals that players send when they accept (and don’t accept) the call from the national team. In a subtle way, Grönborg indicated that Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm, who played for Sweden in the World Championships, was earned the final spot in the defensive roster partly for that reason.
Regardless of that being the case or not, it most likely wasn’t to Klingberg’s advantage to not participate in that tournament. Perhaps Grönborg saw it as a lack of effort to go that extra mile, or perhaps he just wanted to see which players that could perform well wearing the national team jersey. Ekholm proved he could.
Sweden World Cup assistant coach Peter Popovic tells AP decision to take D Ekholm over Klingberg was adding balance to blue line. …
— John Wawrow (@john_wawrow) May 27, 2016
Even if John Klingberg isn’t the right fit for the particular team that Rikard Grönborg wants, he might very well be the sixth best defenseman in the NHL, and Grönborg even might agree on that. What matters is, as my point is, which players that are the best at what they specifically do. You can’t build a team by simply grabbing the 23 players with the most points in the league. It sounds obvious as I put it now, but for some reason, it needs to be repeated every time some spotlight-player gets little appreciation.
This is the same reason that Kris Letang, Logan Couture and P.K. Subban was excluded from Team Canada’s World Cup roster. Great quality together will great competition will put great players on the side. Each team has their separate preferences. Had Klingberg been Canadian for example, the tables might have turned and he might have gotten to play World Cup hockey in September. And the reversed thing if P.K. Subban were Swedish.
But then we are looking at a collection of teams that mixes various nationalities. And I think that format exists already.
Freelance sports journalist settled in Malmo, Sweden. Author on the official site of the Swedish Hockey League. Cover Swedish prospects on their road to the NHL, and Swedish players making it in the NHL.