At first glance, the image on the TV screen just looked wrong. Not as jarring as Mike Modano in a Detroit Red Wings sweater or Emmitt Smith wearing Arizona Cardinals colors, but wrong, nonetheless. John Klingberg wearing anything but a Stars logo seemed unfathomable not so long ago. But, there he was wearing the familiar #3, but playing for the Anaheim Ducks.
A lower body injury kept Klingberg from returning to the American Airlines Center last night. As a result, the first period video tribute did not run. Stars fans would have been reminded of the great moments and performances provided by the native of Gothenburg, Sweden. His goal that eliminated Nashville in Game #6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs will live forever in team history. Klingberg ranks second only to Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov amongst Dallas Stars defensemen in career goals, points, and assists. In the current day NHL, no one walked the blue line better on the power play or was more proficient at getting pucks through the layers of bodies to the front of the net. Yet, he can no longer be found on the home bench and as hard as this is to believe, the Stars are better off because of it.
Rewinding to last year at this time, it seemed the Stars 2010 5th round pick was destined to stay in with the only hockey organization he had ever known in North America. Stars General Manager Jim Nill had stated signing Klingberg before he hit the free-agent market was a top priority for the team, yet a deal never came to fruition. The low point in the saga happened in January when reports surfaced that Klingberg and his agent, frustrated with the Stars offer, had received permission to talk with other NHL teams.
One edict during the Nill era is that contract negotiations are not done in public and certainly not through the media. After this event, the days for Klingberg in Dallas were numbered.
Improving by subtraction didn’t seem to be a likely outcome for the Stars when they allowed Klingberg to walk away in free agency, receiving nothing in return. But that’s exactly what happened. Miro Heiskanen was always destined to be the Stars leader of the defensive unit, but there were times he politely deferred to the more senior player. Klingberg ran the #1 power play unit and Miro was seemingly always waiting for the chance to play with the Stars best scoring combination. The pairing of Esa Lindell with Klingberg had the appearance of being a top combination, while Miro partnered with various defensemen such as Marc Methot, Jamie Oleksiak or Ryan Suter. This season, Heiskanen is the undisputed top defenseman. Not only does the young Finn lead the team in Time-on-Ice, he also quarterbacks the NHL’s third rated power play unit and has stepped up as a locker room leader. Heiskanen confidently owns his role and will dominate in that capacity for years to come.
In a flat Salary Cap world, the Stars might have dodged a bullet by not finalizing a deal with Klingberg. By all accounts, the deal offered was more than $6million (AAV) and for a minimum of five years. Had that offer had been accepted, the Stars off-season would have taken a much different tone due to cap restrictions. It’s highly unlikely Dallas would have had the cap room to offer the contract accepted by Jason Robertson without trading away one or more players currently contributing to their first-place start. It’s also unlikely that Jim Nill would have had the flexibility to sign Mason Marchment or Colin Miller. The Stars probably wouldn’t have made the trade for Nils Lundkvist with another right-handed, offensively talented defenseman already in the fold. Pete DeBoer’s nightly roster would be much different if ink was put to paper last November. Instead, the Stars have more depth at forward with the additions being younger and faster than the squad from last season.
While it might be nice to wonder what Klingberg could have done with the new offensive-minded system. Could he perform at both ends of the ice or at a high-level for the duration of the contract? Veteran players tend to get a step slower while younger, faster skaters continuously enter the league.
During his first five years with the Stars, Klingberg played at an all-star level contributing 52 goals, 259 points in 367 games, with a plus/minus rating of +45. Playing under a defense-first system the past three seasons, Klingberg scored 19 goals, 115 points in 186 games with a plus/minus rating of -53. The trend was more than just a little bit concerning.
Klingberg found a new home in Anaheim, inking a one-year deal worth $7 million. The team has struggled early this season and gelling with a new team after eight seasons with another franchise is never easy (Joe Pavelski can attest to this fact). With a 10-team modified no-trade clause after January 1, John may once again find himself playing for a contender as he will be a valued commodity at the trade deadline.
Nils Lundkvist will have some growing pains, but at age 22, has plenty of good years ahead. Thomas Harley will someday be recalled for good. Meanwhile, top draft picks Lian Bichsel and Christian Kyrou will add to the next generation of Dallas defenders. The organization has blue-line depth the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of hearing that Klingberg, Lindell and Oleksiak were all on the way.
The Stars are in first place and used their unexpected stash of money to add youth to the blueline and quickness to the overall team. Jim Nill crushed the off-season with moves he made and a couple he didn’t.
Some truths in life are hard to accept. John Klingberg leaving was a good thing for the Dallas Stars. Maybe someday soon, it will turn out to be a good thing for Klingberg too.