John Klingberg played his first NHL game on November 11, 2014. This was the same day the Stars traded Sergei Gonchar for Travis Moen, a move made after Gonchar’s decline had proven the Stars’ decision to sign a defenseman in his late 30s to a multi-year deal to be an unfortunate one, especially when a certain lanky Swede began to tear the AHL up at a point-per-game pace. Thankfully, Dallas has since learned its lesson about the inherent dangers of signing older defensemen to multi-year deals.
So out went Gonchar, in came Moen (on a longer contract than Dallas shipped out), and, most important, up from the minors went Klingberg, who took that pricey-but-newfound room and redecorated it with a flourish. His was a revelation of a presence: a force of playmaking talent and puck-handling arrogance the team’s blue line hadn’t boasted in years. Alongside the diminutive Alex Goligoski, the pair would end up being one of the best Stars’ defensive duos of the decade, an archetypal early Jim Nill move that wasn’t always conventional but worked out great for a while.
Comparing players is always tricky. We can trap ourselves within the confines of our limited experience when we talk about “the next Modano” or “the next Belfour.” The game is changing, and players are individuals. But, still, you could not have found a better analog on earth for John Klingberg than what everyone immediately called him: the Next Sergei Zubov.
Case in point, here’s a sample of the drivel I was spouting about Klingberg at the time:
“John Klingberg has instincts about where he needs to go, where the puck might go, and where everyone is expecting him and/or the puck to go at any given time. All hockey players have such instincts, in fact, especially in the NHL. With Klingberg, such instinct looks less like the execution of an idea and much more like a casual reflex fueled by limitless creativity, a semiconscious flicking of the fly near one’s face while bigger things are pondered.”
Sound familiar? Indeed, though we know now that his sweater will never hang next to No. 56 in the hearts or sight lines of Dallas Stars fans, Klingberg actually surpassed Zubov in some surprising categories. Klingberg scored 0.68 points per game in his career to date, compared to Zubov’s 0.65 average during his time in Dallas. That’s astounding when you consider that Zubov played on a Cup champion and two President’s Trophy teams, whereas Klingberg played half his career on Stars teams that didn’t even make the playoffs. To this day, I tend to think that Klingberg’s reputation as “all offense, no defense” among a small section of the fanbase is due in large part to the team’s struggles as a whole. When the ship is sinking, people tend to eschew a great sail in favor of a sturdy bucket.
But even so, the Sergei Zubovs are the type of player every team either treasures or lusts after. Once Zubov retired, fans all put their hopes on the shoulders of his young apprentice, Matt Niskanen, whose shoulders sagged under the weight of expectations until he was shipped out of town, essentially a throw-in with James Neal to acquire Goligoski. Who would like to discuss that trade, again? Me neither. Instead, how about discussing other short-lived candidates for “A Puck-Moving Defenseman, Please. Literally, We Will Take Anyone You Can Find”? I’m talking names like Phillip Larsen and Ivan Vishnevskiy. As they say, when the ship can’t get started, people tend to hoist buckets in hopes they’ll turn out to be pretty decent sails (it is possible I have never seen a ship).
So, yeah, Klingberg absolutely was the Next Zubov in the sense that he was, at last, not a ridiculous person to receive that label. He went on to pot 40 points in 65 games after his recall, and the Stars might have had a playoff berth to show for it had he not been doing so in front of a rapidly declining Kari Lehtonen plus an ocean of failed backup goalies such as Anders Lindbäck, Jussi Rynnas, and Jhonas Enroth. For that matter, had the Stars won a few more games, perhaps some of those voters who voted for Aaron Ekblad for the Calder Trophy in 2014-15 might have been convinced to give Klingberg a fairer shake.
But then again, good thing for Dallas that Klingberg was seen as a bit too much on the older side to win any rookie awards, as his still-nascent value led to what would end up being an extremely savvy seven-year extension at a $4.25 million cap hit. Desperate as Dallas was for a player like Klingberg, it wasn’t planning on letting him get away any time soon. He was the next Zubov, after all.
One category is pretty telling when it comes to distinguishing between Klingberg and Zubov, particularly because it’s one over which coaches have nearly complete control: ice time. Zubov played 26 minutes per night as a Star, and he averaged 29(!) minutes during the playoffs, often surpassing 30(!!) without breaking a sweat. This is who he was, even after the 2004 lockout. The Stars relied on him, and Sergei Zubov proved their trust to be well-founded, even in his mid-30s. That level of trust is something Klingberg hasn’t really been able to keep for a few years now. In hindsight, it was the first indicator that, as the years dragged on, the next Zubov became less and less of a focal point than the original model.
In his first season, Klingberg averaged nearly 22 minutes per night—a remarkable total for any rookie defenseman, let alone one without either the size or draft pedigree to comfort the coaches. That ice time rose over the next few seasons, peaking at 24:32 a night during Jim Montgomery’s first year in 2018-19 (which also marked the debut of a certain rookie Finnish defenseman). You may recall that season ending with a cruel and unusual thud at the hands of St. Louis, but let’s not forget how Klingberg gave Dallas perhaps the best hockey moment in the American Airlines Center since 2008:
Things change, though. Montgomery was abruptly fired the next season, and Klingberg’s ice time plummeted under Rick Bowness, then declined further still after a knee injury suffered as a result of taking a shot in the neck against Colorado. In other words, the last few years have been painful for Klingberg in figurative as well as literal ways.
While Miro Heiskanen was always going to take some of those top-shelf minutes eventually—and rightly so—the more remarkable thing was seeing Klingberg surpassed in ice time by the likes of Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak (by the end of his last season), and, this year, Ryan Suter. These are not names you think of leading the charge when it comes to a team with aspirations of glory. But then again, you are not a veteran NHL coach, probably. They know what they are doing; otherwise, they wouldn’t be NHL coaches.
As this season wound down, Klingberg was averaging the lowest ice time of his career, which is both surprising and not given the team’s priorities and Klingberg’s eventual -28 plus/minus. On the one hand, Bowness had been very clear about his preferences when it comes to what types of players he prefers playing the majority of games, so of course you’d expect that to mean Klingberg seeing less deployment during a year in which he has undeniably struggled.
But on the other hand, if the Stars were resigned to moving on from Klingberg, you’d expect them to be pumping his tires in order to get his trade value as high as possible, right? After all, that was apparently what they were doing last year with Jamie Oleksiak, right up until they decided he was too valuable to trade as a pending UFA, and they ended up losing him for nothing in the expansion draft, right after trading Jason Dickinson for a draft pick to avoid losing Dickinson for nothing. Thankfully, the Stars ended up finding a way to get good value from Klingberg, leading to a long playoff run that justified losing a premier trade asset for nothing. (Note to self: watch the playoffs before filing this story.)
Anyway, if this seems like a little bit of a confusing approach for a team that has only finished top-two in its division once in the last 15 years, I understand. But then again, you are not a veteran NHL executive, probably. They know what they are doing; otherwise, they wouldn’t be NHL executives.
John Klingberg was the Next Sergei Zubov, until he ended his time in Dallas being treated a lot like the last Jamie Oleksiak, who himself at one point was going to be a Frankenstein’s Zubov With Some Hatcher Thrown In. Look, the bankruptcy days were rough, OK? (Note to self: invent the technology to make “Glory Days” start playing when the reader’s eyes get to this paragraph, then destroy that technology forever.) What I’m saying is, given how things worked out, you can perhaps begin to understand why John Klingberg spent half the playoffs trying to punch people in the face. Catharsis: it works, briefly!
Given where the Stars are today, and given Klingberg’s play over the last few seasons, re-signing him for a large chunk of his 30s probably isn’t the surest bet you could make. And for a few years now, Klingberg’s on-ice performance has failed to reassure the powers that be of his prowess on D, leading Dallas to take its gambles to younger, taller, forwardier pastures.
But maybe buying a mystery box is all the Stars can afford to do these days, given the nearly $17 million per year they’re paying Lindell, Heiskanen, and Suter for the next three years. Loading up the defense with yet another big contract evokes some memories that hit a bit too close to home. Nill, after all, is the same guy who handed $10 million to Lehtonen and Antii Niemi, then doled out $19 million to Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. The moves were all understandable at the time, but you lose a taste for gambling after enough bad beats, even if the Stars did make one final, futile effort to keep Klingberg in the fold at a price that fit their budget.
In the end, the Stars just weren’t desperate enough to shell out the money John Klingberg is worth. With Heiskanen anchoring the defense corps now, maybe that sanguine outlook is the way to go. Sometimes you redecorate with a beautiful flourish, and sometimes you ask Colin Miller to nail some boards over the John Klingberg-shaped hole in your wall (it is possible I have never redecorated anything).
I will miss John Klingberg in the way you regret seeing the sun set on a wonderful day. Even if tomorrow brings its own joy—and with the great young talent in the Stars organization, future joy seems likelier than ever—it will never be the same joy that I felt watching Klingberg play in person for the first time, that I felt seeing Klingberg win the Stars’ second-ever 3v3 overtime game. Maybe The Next Zubov never really did become The New Zubov, but that doesn’t define his legacy any more than Thomas Harley’s career will be defined by whether or not he becomes The Next Klingberg. All that can be hoped for is that Harley gets the same chance Klingberg got to demonstrate what magic he has. Because with really special players, one chance is usually all they need.