2016-17 Dallas Stars Season Expectations: John Klingberg and Esa Lindell
The two young defensemen are at relatively opposite ends of the development spectrum now, but does their complimentary style of play make them future potential partners?
What a difference a couple of years makes.
Merely two years ago, John Klingberg was preparing for his first full season with the Texas Stars after coming over from Frolunda at the end of the 2013-14 campaign. He was considered a little bit of a late bloomer even after a very impressive playoff run with the AHL's Stars in 2014, projected to arrive in the NHL sometime in the 2015-16 season.
Rankings varied, and while he was usually within the Top 10, there was no consensus Klingberg's game would translate to the NHL. But about a month into the 2014-15 season, he was called up for the first time, the only time that would be necessary for him to establish not only an NHL role, but one as one of the top offensive defensemen in the league.
It's actually somewhat surprising to remember that this season will only mark Klingberg's third season in the NHL. He adjusted so well and so quickly, even bypassing most of the somewhat-typical sophomore slump, that he seems like a seasoned part of the team rather than still a relative youngster.
And this season, he's going to be called upon to take even the next step in development (which is hard to believe given he was Top 20 in the Norris Trophy voting last season) because of the departure of several veteran defensemen, especially Alex Goligoski. Goligoski and Klingberg were a formidable pair at even strength last season, making up for their less-physical presence with dominating puck possession, and this season will show how much of that was due to two similar players complementing each other.
As part of his continued maturation process, Klingberg will also be leaned upon as a veteran member of the defense who sets the emotional, as well as stylistic, tone. In the Stars glory days, the team fed off the calm exuded by a quartet of defensemen. While today's Stars are in no way that team's stylistic cousins, they could certainly use that sense of composure from the defense adjusted for a higher-flying style.
Entering this season, Klingberg is the defenseman with the second-most experience with the Stars (141 regular-season games with the organization to Jordie Benn's 244 games). It seems crazy to ask even more than he gave last season, but for the Stars to take the next step from dangerous to contender, he will have to be a key part of the head of the dragon.
On the other end of the experience spectrum is Esa Lindell, who is only two years younger than Klingberg light-years away in NHL experience and expectations. That's no criticism of Lindell, who at 22 is exactly where the Stars would like him on the developmental curve. But while Klingberg needs to be a cornerstone of the Stars success, Lindell is just hoping to be a brick in the wall.
Some of that is a numbers game. The Stars have too many players on NHL contracts right now - 24 in all assuming RFA Valeri Nichushkin is under contract at some point - with 14 forwards and eight defensemen if Lindell is included. And beyond the contract, the Stars will probably be very hesitant to put a prospect they have high hopes for in the press box for long stretches after both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak struggled with that role last season.
Lindell is on the final year of his entry-level contract with a cap hit just under $750,000, and because of that flexibility, he may very well start the season in the AHL with an eye on the first injury call up. Lindell was solid but not spectacular in a brief stint last season, but if he continues to improve, the Stars may be forced to make roster room for him sooner rather than later the way they did for Stephen Johns.
Lindell boasts size and decent puck moving ability, though he is not typically very physical in his own end. In a way, that may make him an ideal future partner for someone just like Klingberg. It's very easy to undersell just how good Goligoski was, both as Klingberg's partner and on his own, and developing the hockey sense to understand when to jump into the play at the NHL level generally takes some time and patience. But Lindell has the potential to be on that cusp, and this season will go a long way toward showing whether the Stars view him in that capacity or as more of a lower-pairing player.