It's been five years since defenceman Sergei Zubov last played a game for the Dallas Stars, but the argument could certainly be made that the team has never fully recovered from the loss of his presence.
It's a notion that's easy to understand. During his time in the NHL, Zubov was one of the league's premier offensive defenceman, using his smooth skating, razor-sharp passing and incredible on-ice vision to dissect opposing defenses. He racked up 771 points in that time, most of which came during his 12-year stint with the Dallas Stars.
Zubov was undoubtedly one of the best in the world at what he did, even if the rest of the NHL never gave him as much recognition as he deserved. How, exactly, does a team go about replacing a player like that?
(I suppose the Stars could find another Kevin Hatcher to trade, but that's a different story...)
Since Zubov left Dallas in 2009 to play one last season in his homeland of Russia, the Stars have had a notable void on their roster when it comes to defencemen capable of producing as much offense as Zubov did. Trevor Daley put up plenty of points in his junior days in the OHL, but that scoring never translated to the NHL. Stephane Robidas could chip in points, but his area of expertise was always the defensive side of the game. Matt Niskanen showed some promise as a youngster, but his development began to stagnate in Dallas, ultimately leading to him being shipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For the past few seasons Alex Goligoski has been Dallas' best offensive weapon from the back end, but with a career high of 46 points in a season it's no secret that the team could use some more help producing offense from the defense.
Which is precisely what makes prospect John Klingberg so exciting.
Klingberg was a complete unknown when he was drafted out of Sweden in the 5th round, 131st overall, in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but has steadily climbed into the picture when it comes to the Stars' top prospects.
As far as offensive weapons go, Klingberg has them all: excellent skating, excellent hands, excellent passing, and a surprisingly effective slapshot considering his relatively slight frame (measured at 6'2", 180 pounds according to the Stars' official site).
What has impressed me the most about Klingberg, however, are his offensive instincts. While footage of Klingberg is harder to find due to him playing in Sweden and Finland for the past few seasons, I watched him closely at the 2011 and 2012 World Juniors, and saw his vision first hand. He knew the right times to activate offensively, and knew where to go and what to do to open up opposing defenses and create offensive chances. His style of play was inherently risky, but he was rarely burned by it because of smart decision making.
I didn't get to watch him in person during Dallas' training camp in the fall, stuck with only some scrimmage videos, but all the reports seemed to come out with the same conclusion: Klingberg has some serious offensive potential.
It's that combination of vision and overall hockey skills that have helped the 21 year-old Klingberg to a very impressive season in the Swedish Hockey League, registering 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 50 regular season games. He also currently has one assist in two games as his Frolunda Indians team is already engaged in the SHL playoffs.
Now, let's take a look at those numbers again: 28 points in 50 games. At first glance they don't seem too particularly impressive, considering top offensive defensemen in North America put up higher point-per-game averages than that. However, the SHL is a different beast from the NHL and the AHL, and actually features lower scoring league-wide.
How, then, can we more accurately measure Klingberg's performance, and how it might translate to the NHL? To do so I've complied the following chart, which features some of the NHL's top Swedish-born defencemen, their best seasons in the SHL (formerly known as the SEL) and how old they were during those seasons, and their best seasons thus far in the NHL.
|Player||Season||Age That Season||Points And Games||Best NHL Season Thus Far|
|Erik Karlsson||2008-2009||18||10 points in 45 games||78 points in 81 games|
|Tobias Enstrom||2006-2007||22||28 points in 55 games||51 points in 72 games|
|Victor Hedman||2008-2009||18||21 points in 43 games||43 points in 61 games (current)|
|Niklas Kronwall||2002-2003||21||18 points in 50 games||51 points in 80 games|
|Johnny Oduya||2005-2006||24||19 points in 47 games||29 points in 82 games|
Note: I excluded Oliver Ekman-Larsson from this list because he spent his pre-NHL days playing in the Sweden-1 league, which is a step below the SHL. For reference anyways, he put up 27 points in 42 games during his last season there as an 18 year-old.
So, in terms of comparisons, Klingberg's 28 points in 50 games as a 21 year-old look quite good, and are a very positive sign for the future.
Now, obviously there is no guarantee that Klingberg will actually put up the same offensive totals in the NHL as a player like Erik Karlsson or even Tobias Enstrom. And in no way, shape or form should Klingberg be expected to perform to the level of Zubov, who, as already said, was one of the best defencemen in the NHL when he was around. That's not a fair comparison at all.
But, when it comes to evaluating prospects and hoping for the future, there is a lot to like about the young Swede. Given the proper development curve and the right environment, it's not a far stretch to suggest that Klingberg has the potential to become a very valuable offensive weapon for the Stars in the future.
With Klingberg scheduled to transition to North America next season, or possibly even this one still depending on how his current playoff race goes, Stars fans won't have to wait for long to see for themselves what he can bring to the table.