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Calder Conversation: John Klingberg is Clearly This Season's Best Rookie Defenseman

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The Stars rookie defenseman outshines all his competition in every measurable way except age - is that enough to get him a Calder Trophy nomination?

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Every long-time Dallas Stars fan understands exactly why age is a factor in Calder Trophy discussions.

Back in the days when the Stars will still the Minnesota North Stars, a young kid named Mike Modano burst onto the NHL scene as a 19 year old with 29 goals and 75 points in 80 games, helping to lead his team to the playoffs. That same 1989-90 season, however, a Red Army veteran named Sergei Makarov had an equally impressive campaign with 24 goals and 86 points in 80 games.

The fact that Makarov was 31 years old didn't matter to the Calder voters, who awarded him the rookie of the year honors over Modano. After that season, the rules were changed so that players had to be 26 or younger at the start of the year to be eligible.

Age has rightfully remained a factor in the voting for an award the NHL defines as "the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League." But should it be the main factor or more of a tiebreak? Voter's feelings on that question may decide whether or not Dallas Stars rookie John Klingberg is a Calder finalist because in every way except age, he is by far the best rookie defenseman in the class of 2014-15.

We're going to break this down into two charts of the most likely contenders, as based on the top four forwards in rookie scoring and top two defensemen (who are far separated from the rest of the pack). Apologies to Anders Lee, who is the only top rookie scorer left off this list.

First, a comparison of total scoring:

Player Team Age GP Goals Assists Points PPG PP goals PP assists PP points
Filip Forsberg NSH 20 71 21 33 54 0.76 5 13 18
Johnny Gaudreau CAL 21 68 19 34 53 0.78 6 10 16
Mark Stone OTT 22 66 17 28 45 0.68 3 6 9
Mike Hoffman OTT 25 65 23 15 42 0.65 1 2 3
John Klingberg DAL 22 53 10 26 36 0.68 2 8 10
Aaron Ekblad FLA 18-19 68 11 23 34 0.5 5 5 10

One of these things is not like the others, but that's to be expected from a defenseman who is breaking into the NHL as a teenager. Still, it's notable just how far behind Ekblad is in scoring as compared to Klingberg. If Klingberg maintained his same pace and had played the same number of games as Ekblad this season, he would have 46 points.

Well, one might say, it's Klingberg's fault he wasn't up at the start of the season. But as Stars fans know, that's not true. Klingberg had major surgery on both hips late last spring and wasn't fully recovered by the start of training camp. He needed the time in the AHL not because he wasn't ready to make the NHL roster but because he needed to get his legs back underneath him after a summer of recovery.

Klingberg's age is also not an outlier to the other players in this group. He's at the slightly older end, but not by anything significant (that honor belongs to Hoffman). He's exactly 364 days older than Gaudreau, and Gaudreau is exactly one year to the day older than Forsberg.

What is it about August 13 and 14th?

Of course, scoring isn't the only important part about hockey, especially for your defensemen. So using the statistics from behindthenet.ca, here are some of the advanced metrics in 5 v. 5 situations for the selected players.

Player Team Age TOI/60 Corsi Rel O-Zone Start % O-Zone Finish% QualComp PDO
Filip Forsberg NSH 20 13.78 12.7 68.7 53.5 0.006 1000
Johnny Gaudreau CAL 21 14.03 8.1 57.0 50.3 0.008 1020
Mark Stone OTT 22 12.43 9.3 50.1 46.6 -0.005 1042
Mike Hoffman OTT 25 12.28 6.2 57.3 50.8 -0.017 1053
John Klingberg DAL 22 17.92 6.3 50.2 51.0 0.019 1005
Aaron Ekblad FLA 18-19 17.86 7.7 59.6 51.9 -0.046 1003

Corsi Rel is a measure of how successful a player is at driving possession compared to the rest of his team. Bigger numbers are better. All six rookies are positive on their teams, which is remarkable and a great sign for their all-around games.

QualComp is a measure of how good the opposition a players faces is, and in this case, a more positive number means more difficult competition while a more negative number means easier competition. Three of the rookies here are sheltered in this way, none more so than Ekblad. Klingberg faces the most difficult competition of any rookie on this list by a significant margin.

PDO is a general indicator of the role luck plays, and the outliers here are the pair from the Senators, who are slightly more "lucky" than average. Nothing screams totally unsustainable, though.

Finally, the offensive zone start/finish percentage is a measure of a player's ability to drive possession down the ice to the other team's end as well as a measure of how sheltered a player is defensively. The higher a percentage of starts made in the offensive zone, the more a player shouldn't have to spent his time defending, and a positive number when you subtract the start percentage from the finish percentage indicates the player typically drives play forward.

This last category is where Klingberg really shines. He is the only one of the top rookies to drive play forward a majority of the time, and he is one of the least sheltered when it comes to offensive zone starts. Ekblad is very sheltered (and has the play driven backwards on him), and Forsberg even more so.

Of course, that's not surprising for a rookie. Coaches prefer to give them easier minutes in situations where they can be successful to build confidence. The surprise in a very positive way is that the Stars aren't doing that with Klingberg, and he is more than thriving despite that.

Which brings us full circle to the age conversation. If we assume that Forsberg and Gaudreau have two of the nominations rightfully locked up, then there's one finalist spot left for two very good, young defenseman.

Ekblad has had a remarkable year by anyone's standards for a rookie even before you consider his age. However, there is no question that Klingberg is having a significantly better year in nearly every category, from offensive production to defensive load. If Klingberg had played the same number of games as Ekblad, it wouldn't even be close.

The age thing is a huge factor though in the minds of many. What is the "curve" for a teenager fresh out of major juniors versus a player three years older who has seasons in Sweden's top-tier league under his belt? On the flip side, though, is a fifth-rounder accomplishing what Klingberg has managed more impressive than a first-overall pick succeeding right away?

There's obviously no "right" answer for those questions. Personally, I prefer to see age as the tiebreak between relatively equal players.  That would be the case for Forsberg and Gaudreau for me - two guys who are doing many of the same awesome things with arguable points on each side. As Forsberg is a year younger, Forsberg would get my nod for best rookie forward (and best rookie overall).

But I don't think you can argue that Klingberg and Ekblad are having equivalent or even nearly equivalent seasons at this point, and that's not a knock on Ekblad at all. Ekblad is having a great rookie season, but Klingberg is having a phenomenal one, one that almost certainly would be even better had he been fully healthy entering training camp.

In fact, if you look at the change in the past six weeks, Klingberg's play is actually slightly down (likely as a result of the team slump after Tyler Seguin's injury and the overall focus on trying to make up for his lost offense), and he's still clearly the best rookie in terms of driving play and strength-of-opposition, well ahead of not only Ekblad but the forward competition as well.

At the advanced age of 22, age is one of the primary reasons Klingberg can't seem to get his name in the conversation. But there's a fairly obvious trend against European imports in Calder voting.

The last two players to win coming directly from a European league were Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin almost a decade ago. Before that, you have to go back another decade to Daniel Alfredsson (Sergei Samsonov and Evgeni Nabokov each played full seasons in the AHL or IHL before graduating up).

Draft status also hurts Klingberg, as first-overall picks get exponentially more attention. Market doesn't help either Klingberg's or Ekblad's causes, though if one played somewhere like Toronto or Chicago, you can be sure they'd receive more attention. That said,  the Calder is voted on by the PWHA, and there are more PWHA members who primarily cover the Eastern Conference and/or are national writers based on the East Coast (70 percent of the membership, to be precise). They're simply more likely to see Ekblad than Klingberg.

Stars fans have been asking for the next Sergei Zubov since the all-time great retired several years ago. Perhaps Klingberg is just living up to that comparison in yet another way; after all, no great defenseman of the era was as underappreciated as Zubov by the wider hockey world.