The Dallas Stars and the Care and Feeding of Young Defensemen
John Klingberg's minutes have been much more carefully controlled as the young defenseman settles into the NHL game, and that's far from a bad thing.
There is almost nothing as tempting in professional hockey as a brilliant young defenseman, and the Dallas Stars have a high-end one in young John Klingberg.
It sure seems like he could handle 20-25 minutes a game. But I'll contend now and forever it's much better for both the Stars and Klingberg, at least in the long term, that he's not being asked to do that.
A few weeks back, when Ruff first started reducing Klingberg's minutes, he made some very interesting comments to Mike Heika about his rationale for more careful minute management.
"I said this when he was going well: I didn’t want to get too far ahead," Ruff said. "I think it hurt his game. For a couple games, he played poorly. He defended poorly, was in on a lot of scoring chances against. We’ve got to be cautious here.
"We can all get excited and jump up and down, but the league will take a look at him, figure him out, which I think teams have now. They are a little more cautious and have more respect for what he can do offensively. For me, it’s just to make sure that this young defenseman stays on the right track. He’ll get better, but we gave him way too much responsibility. It led to reckless play, individual play."
So lets break all that down. Ruff's thinking was that Klingberg got a little overly enthusiastic about his great NHL debut stretch and started to take a few too many risks in his own end that didn't work out. That led to the downside of a puck-moving kid - some turnover happy games - and overall poor defense.
He continues by pointing out that one of the things that allowed Klingberg to start so well was teams had no idea what to make of him. But once teams got a good set of video on Klingberg, they started to make adjustments.
You could really see this in the Stars victory over the Vancouver Canucks earlier this week.
When Klingberg first arrived in the NHL, teams tried to handle him like they would most young defensemen - hard forechecking pressure, sometimes with two guys, to force turnovers from players not used to NHL game speed. But Klingberg's style of play meant that strategy played right into his hands. He was able to make short little passes to his now-open teammates and get out of trouble.
But the Canucks had that game read, and rather than pressuring Klingberg, they hung back a bit on him into the passing lane, daring him to make a long pass through three Vancouver players or try to skate it out through traffic at the blue line. Because Klingberg's instincts are so honed to getting the puck to a teammate (rather than simply getting it out of danger, which is the priority for many young defensemen), this sort of baiting worked well for the Canucks. They trapped him into turnovers and relatively poor play.
This isn't to say that it's a horrible prognostic sign - far from it. Klingberg's possession-centric instincts will eventually set him apart from his peers and make him an incredibly valuable defenseman in the long-term. But like all young defensemen, the learning curve is steep, and coaches have to be careful not to hand them too much too soon.
"I want him to use his instincts. I love the way he plays," Ruff continued about Klingberg. "All I’m saying is if you go too fast, this is a hard league and the other teams figure you out and then pretty soon you start going sideways. Once you start going sideways, sometimes you go backwards. I don’t want him to go backwards. I think he’s going the right direction again. He had a couple sideways but now he’s going the right direction again."
Let's bring this back to another young, very promising Stars defenseman of yesteryear, one Matt Niskanen. Niskanen's presence on the NHL roster was a bit of surprise as a rookie and came because he showed the rare ability to be the perfect complimentary partner to Sergei Zubov (who was a brilliant defenseman but necessitated a certain level of hockey sense from his partner that not everyone had). He burst out of the gates early in the season and secured a long-term role as the veteran defensemen broke down around him.
But Niskanen got going sideways late in his rookie season and never really pulled out of it, jumping between going backwards and sideways in his NHL-level development for the next several seasons before being included in the trade for Alex Goligoski. Everyone agreed his confidence was shot by the end of his time in Dallas, that a change of scenery was best for everyone involved.
And it took him even a bit in Pittsburgh before he was really able to re-find his game. While he's probably not quite as good as the gaudy numbers he put up with the Penguins power play (or the contract he earned with the Capitals), he became quite a valuable two-way piece again.
That very circular path is exactly what the Stars are trying to avoid with Klingberg. If they can catch when his game is going sideways and cut back on the responsibility to get it going forward again, that ideally leads to a much more linear NHL development.
To bring us around full circle, that's exactly why the Stars are managing Klingberg's minutes tightly right now. While this is neither the coaching staff nor management that rushed Niskanen along, the pitfalls of pushing a young defenseman too early are well known.
The Stars could theoretically be a better team this season if Klingberg ate some big minutes. They will be a better team long term if he isn't forced to night in and night out.