If there's been a pattern to the ragged first games of the Dallas Stars season, it's that everything has just looked a little... off.
The speedy transition game that the Stars rode for most of last season hasn't really its head. Heck there were questions about the chemistry between Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin after the first two games, and they have since been spit up, and while Seguin is rolling, Jamie Benn's even-strength production has been conspicuously absent.
But the biggest thing that has seemed off so far is the play of one John Klingberg.
The lithe Swedish defenseman roared onto the scene in Dallas in November of 2014, less than two years ago, got his name in the Calder Trophy conversation. He followed up on that with a great 2015-16 season, sneaking into the Norris Trophy voting after spearheading the Stars offensive dragon.
But this season, with former defensive partner Alex Goligoski departed for the desert, has been a rough one. While there have been flashes of the Klingberg fans know and love, he's been more of a problem than an asset both at even strength and on special teams.
Some of that has been the inability to find a consistent defensive partner. He has cycled through nearly every left shot on the Stars blueline, settling recently with Dan Hamhuis after some time with rookie Esa Lindell. It's not just even-strength either- Klingberg blunders have played big parts in several shorthanded goals, including last night in the embarrassing loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
For the record, Goligoski is having a pretty slow start to the season in Arizona as well. Perhaps the pairing was synergistic, bringing out more than the sum of its parts in the two players. Or perhaps something deeper is going on with one or both players.
On Klingberg's end, you have to account for the massive injuries to the Stars forwards. There is no question that if the team had a healthy (deep breath) Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Cody Eakin, Jiri Hudler and Ales Hemsky (leaving out Mattias Janmark, who they knew in the summer would be out most of the year) available, the whole product looks different and better. Those players are simply more skilled than the players who have taken their place.
That's not a knock on Devin Shore, Curtis McKenzie, Gemel Smith or Adam Cracknell, by any means. They only have the tools they are given, and it's unfair to ask them to play like former NHL All-Stars. But there's a trickle down effect, from the fact that teams can laser focus on the Stars first line (which Klingberg is usually working behind) to the missing parts of the power play.
So you're left with a vicious cycle. Klingberg and a partner with whom he doesn't have great chemistry are playing behind a forward set that is both hurting for goals and likely less skilled overall than any potential opponent they face, at least for the short term. The combination leads to cheating to the offensive end, trying to get any goals possible since they are likely to be in short supply.
Cheating to the offensive end leads to odd-man rushes the other way, something the Stars defenders have somehow forgotten how to defend in the last few weeks. If those don't end up in goals, the Stars are still likely outskilled by their opponents at forward, which leads to tons of defensive zone running around. With a new pair without much chemistry, this creates ample opportunities for mismatches and lost assignments.
Finally, when the Stars do get the puck, teams have started to gameplan to pressure Klingberg so that he is forced to make a quick decision with the puck. His options are to dump it off to an unfamiliar partner who may or may not be where he things he is or try to thread it to a forward, which has a 1/2 chance of being an AHL player.
Overtrying leads to breakdowns. Breakdowns lead to pressure to "have to score right now." That attitude leads to overtrying. And the cycle continues.
But beyond the systemic issues, something is off about Klingberg's game himself. His decision making and keep ability at the blueline has changed, and not for the better. He's struggling to deal with forward's acceleration and, while speed was never really his greatest strength, it hasn't been as much of a weakness as it is currently. Not only is the team in front of him hurting, but he's having many more moments of hurting the team in front of him.
So how to fix it? Some of it is just going to have to be the injury-healing salve of time. Seriously, if you traded Sharp, Hudler and Eakin to any roster for no assets of note, that team would automatically be considered significantly better with no change to its current players. And for a guy like Klingberg - a high-skilled guy who is best utilized with other equally skilled players to work with - his game would also likely take a turn for the better.
Along those lines, some of it may be the settling of the roster so this team can have consistent practice time. For a guy who relies on vision like Klingberg, not knowing where his teammates are going to be has to be a crippling disadvantage, and when a team is so unhealthy it's struggling to ice a game-like practice roster, that ability is really lost.
This also applies on the blueline. Chemistry is a big part of what makes a defensive pairing work, and the Stars have pretty much none of that going right now. Some of the issue is they feel the need to rotate minutes to younger players, since no one other than Jordie Benn has really settled into a consistently positive possession benefit. When none of Esa Lindell, Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak can produce consistently positive numbers and Stephen Johns is riding a big roller coaster, the Stars don't feel like they can ice a consistent best six.
See, for evidence, this graph:
Update on 5v5 entry defense for Dallas. Oleksiak is just so baffling, I don't know what's wrong. pic.twitter.com/tMR9b5rq0C
— Jordan Dix (@jordan_dix) November 15, 2016
But some of it also has to come back to Klingberg the individual. He was tapped to be the future and leader of this defensive corps, and this is the time he must step up and settle into that role with his own changes. With defensemen, that often comes from simplifying the game in the short term to regain confidence. Take a step back at the blueline to calmly collect the puck and regroup rather than try to pinch and keep it in, then lose a footrace in the aftermath. Make the safe, simple breakout pass rather than trying to go cross-ice for the streaking forward.
These are pretty much the antithesis of Klingberg's strengths, so it's totally understandable why it's not his first instinct. But things like those mentioned above are not meant to be permanent adjustments - simply short term changes until his hands, feet and vision settle back down. As the idiom goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing every time and expecting different results. Perhaps a brief change may bring a large benefit.
Whatever it is, whether it's a team recovery, an individual adjustment or even a brief stint in the press box to watch from above, it needs to happen soon. As Klingberg goes, so goes the entire Dallas team. And they can't afford to be stuck in this rut much longer.