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Analyzing The Chemistry of John Klingberg and Esa Lindell

According to Lindy Ruff, Jim Nill, and a lot of observers, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell have chemistry. Do the numbers agree or disagree?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an amusing fictional exchange in the seminal film*, Moneyball, between general manager Bill Beane, and his crew of Oakland A’s scouts. The baseball scouts eagerly key in on of one the hitters they think can make the jump into the majors. They run off their checklist of reasons why this hitter passes the smell test; the man’s jaw, his looks, the crack of the bat as it hits the ball, his athleticism, his “five tools” profile, et cetera.

These all sound like valid reasons through the prism of an experienced, venerable baseball scout. But for Billy, a quick look at his batting average cuts through the hieroglyphic cliches and prompts a rhetorical question. “If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?”

It’s a wonderful scene, and an analogy for a similar dilemma I believe the Dallas Stars are currently in the middle of.

John Klingberg and rookie defensemen Esa Lindell, are Dallas’ minute munching defensemen, and top pair. They are tasked with the most minutes against the NHL’s elite. It’s not an easy job, but for any defensive pair in this league, it never is. Thus far, we’ve been told that the two have “chemistry”. Klingberg has “found his game” with the “extremely poised” rookie from Finland.

I don’t mean to mock these observations. In fact, I think there’s truth to all of these comments. All of them, except one. If Klingberg and Lindell have chemistry, then where is it?

Analyzing defensemen by just looking at shot attempts for, against, and the differential among the two (what has come to be known as Corsi), is never ideal. Defensemen start their positions at the furthest end of the opponent’s zone, so expecting a connection between shots and defensive acumen is a flimsy baseline for analyzing them.

However, sometimes numeric trends outline comic book level patterns. To that end, I find Lindell’s WOWY’s (the Bono inspired stat, With or Without You) pretty interesting.

Below is a look at Lindell’s shot attempt differential when he’s without the partner in question (right), and the shot attempt differential for his partner when he’s without Lindell. From top to bottom, the players are: John Klingberg, Jordie Benn, Dan Hamhuis, Jamie Oleksiak, Stephen Johns, Patrik Nemeth, and Julius Honka.

Per datarink, this is telling to say the least. Everybody improves their raw shot differential without Lindell, the oddball exception being Orange Julius Honka (an outlier, since they’ve only spent nine minutes together). Lindell seems to see the stone set in Honka’s eyes when paired together. Likewise, he seems constantly pining for reaching the shore through the storm with Klingberg.

Comparing Klingberg and Lindell to the rest of Dallas’ pairs is more interesting. Below is a list of all of Dallas’ defense pairings with at least 80 minutes of ice time together at even strength along with some assorted stats from Corsica. Listed are their raw shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA60), scoring chances against per 60 minutes, which are shots tallied within the homeplate area of the ice (SCA60), and expected goals against per 60 (xGA60), which calculates shot attempts with varieties of shot quality (a stat that’s limited by its calculator’s own admission, to say nothing of the binning problem).

With all the fancy stat caveats I have trouble with in mind, this is the picture of Dallas’ defense. Klingberg and Lindell have a middling CA60. Hamhuis with everyone but Klingberg, and Benn w/Johns have better shot attempts against per 60.

When it comes to scoring chances, they fare a lot better. Only Hamhuis w/Honka, and Benn w/Johns are better. Their expected goals against per 60 is below middling, on the other hand. Hamhuis w/Klingberg are the only ones worse in that department, which is not good for as much time as they spend on the ice (or a good look for Klingberg as a whole).

As a quick aside, Benn and Johns are 17th in the NHL in xGA60. Not a bad pair.

Back to Lindell w/Klingberg, though their shot attempts against, and expected goals against per 60 are worse than Klingberg’s journey with Alex Goligoski, last season’s defacto number one pair were disastrous in the scoring chance department.

After losing so much in the fire, at last we’ve found something in the ashes. Still. That was a much better defense last season.

Basically, Lindell and Klingberg are doing okay when it comes to helping prevent shots within five feet in front of the net, but they experience two broad problems: generating possession going the other way, and helping prevent goals against.

After Dallas’ loss to Chicago, Lindy Ruff singled out Klingberg as the issue with the Klingberg and Lindell defense pairing.

"We are looking at that pair to be our best pair because of their mobility and because I think Esa has played heavy and strong," Ruff said. "They have been a good pair, but at the end there have been too many games decided with what we call our best pair on the ice."

First off, criticizing Klingberg is totally fair. He’s clearly a high event defensemen on both ends of the ice, even going back to last season, for better or worse. But Ruff’s quote is interesting. Heavy and strong are vague descriptions. Like the baseball scouts in the aforementioned Moneyball scene, they feel a little too mercurial to be meaningful.

My theory for their struggles is a simple one. It’s something I referred to when I argued in my training camp profile that Lindell wasn’t really ready, and then expanded on in whatever the heck I was on about in this post about paradigm shifts. Which is this: Lindell plays good in static situations, but the modern game is less forgiving to static sequences of defense, forcing defensemen to tap into a three zone dynamic that demands more movement, and less passive anticipation.

We’re so used to thinking of speed as a quality of offense, we forget how critical it is to defense in the modern NHL: backchecking, transitioning, pivoting in the corners, and/or gaining the first step on a forechecker. Pick any game you like, and watch Lindell in his own zone. Sure he may chip it out, or rim it across the board with success, but he’s incapable of carrying it out.

Skating is a complex skill with numerous layers. It sounds weird to criticize Klingberg’s skating too, but Klingberg himself has a slow first step. Yes, he’s agile, fluid in open ice, and is above average in many facets. But he doesn’t have great acceleration. As such, he’s prone to a fast forecheck, which helps explain why opponents taking “runs” at him are often successful. They may sound ideal in theory (one’s good with offense, the other good with defense), but they accentuate none of each other’s strengths, and their flaws overlap.

Jim Nill and Les Jackson were adamant about Lindell’s ability after being selected to the World Cup. Perhaps to a fault. Lindell has been gifted opportunities that I don’t know he’s earning. Even the level headed Sean Shapiro noted that Dallas was “forcing this narrative”.

This isn’t an argument against Lindell, though. He’s playing top pairing minutes in his rookie year with a partner who himself has struggled on his own. Lindell has clearly defined strengths too. In the AHL, he managed his impressive rookie point total with prime PP minutes, being a point specialist the team sorely needed. Why isn’t he playing prime power play minutes? Will Jordie and Hamhuis magically develop point shot powers after a decade of having done nothing of the sort? Lindell thrived in the AHL when he had Johns and Honka rushing the puck out of the zone for him, which makes you wonder why he hasn’t been reunited with his former partners. Might this help the rookie d-man clearly struggling more than Ruff would admit?

Dallas isn’t a good team right now for a lot of reasons. Klingberg and Lindell don’t carry the cross on their own, but they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting for a struggling team that they may or may not be equipped for.

*Well, a seminal film for stats nerds. Otherwise it’s watchable only for the lampooning of old school psychologies, and nothing much else IMO.