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Opinion: John Klingberg is Worth Every Penny. Just Not in Dallas’ System

Full disclosure: I’m biased. There’s the passive bias of seeing the world exclusively through a male lens, and then there’s the active bias of dead philosophers I’ve entrusted to frame my worldview. As such, I can speak knowledgeably on what it’s like to be a man who happens to have strong opinions about theologians (Ambrose of Milan) and economists (Francois Quesnay) being woefully underrepresented as influential philosophers. Granted, I never said biases could be either interesting or useful, but they’re nonetheless signals that I have a deep knowledge of something. Whether or not these biases are good or bad depends on my willingness to see past their limits. And so I disclose another bias: I love offense more than defense in hockey, which is why I want John Klingberg to be a part of Dallas’ future.

Yes, I find offense more exciting, although a legal, bone-brunching hit gets my blood pumping as much as the next bloodthirsty fan. But mainly, I just think offense is a skill that’s harder to recreate. Goals are, by and large, lucksacks from the hockey gods, which is why we think of players like Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews as modern day sorcerers. It’s not something that “takes care of itself”, despite what Rick Bowness says. Colorado’s offense doesn’t “take care of itself”. No: they focus on an explicit strategy to beat the first forechecker to create numerical disadvantages across the ice so that the players can take care of their plans to score.

Players spend years working on their offensive bias and the will towards creating it. Just look at Joe Pavelski with his career-long shooting coach. Players rely on teammate skillsets  and smart strategies to further create. There is, and should be, a ‘It Takes a Village’ mindset to goal-scoring, and that’s why the truly gifted offensive players stand out: sometimes they seem to do it all by themselves.

To that end, Dallas has a straightforward dilemma: “do we have the cap to afford a gifted offensive defender like John Klingberg, and is he worth it to begin with?” There’s another dilemma that won’t be discussed in public: “does Klingberg fit into the current worldview of what makes an effective player? Does Klingberg fit into our bias of what makes an effective blueliner worth committing long term money to?”

Let’s answer the first question. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections have Klingberg’s estimated AAV at $6.9M for five years. It sounds like a great deal, and it’s possible Klingberg settles for less than what he’s currently asking for when all is said and done, but right now what he’s currently asking for is the following: $62 to $66 million over an eight-year term, which would put his AAV closer to $7 to $8 million per year.

Is he worth that?

If we go by Klingberg’s pre-Bowness years, the answer is a categorical yes. In his prime, with a system that tried to care of offense instead of letting it take care of itself, Klingberg played the part of puck-moving star, which he is (top 10 in defensemen scoring since his debut, and probably the 2014-2015 Calder winner in a just world), and Dallas’ most productive blueliner in franchise history (in terms of production per game). If we take his even strength offense, even strength defense, power play offense, shorthanded defense, and penalty differential and stick them in a mathematical stew assessing whether or not those values add up over the baseline for what it takes to typically win a game — i.e. Wins Above Replacement — then the answer is also a categorical yes.

At his best (Lindy Ruff’s second year, and the Ken Hitchcock run), Klingberg was worth three wins. Dallas is currently on pace for 88 points. That means Dallas would be on pace for 82 points without pre-Bowness Klingberg, assuming a replacement level defender was brought in as his substitute. Since his current performance is replacement-level, that means Dallas could probably guarantee themselves a wild card slot if enough changes were made to bring Klingberg back to pre-Bowness levels.

From his rookie year until Jim Montgomery’s first season, Klingberg was performing right alongside his peers, comparable to Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi. The Nashville Predators star is currently worth an AAV of $9 million until 2028. I realize ‘Wins Above Replacement’ can be a hard-to-grasp stat. “How can we trust the ingredients for something so wide in scope? Who’s comfortable boiling down Klingberg’s career into a single number?” I see you smirking there. Yes, I’ll let the irony marinate with you, dear reader, since that is exactly why we’re here: to find out what number Klingberg is worth in dollars.

While WAR includes more than just goals, and the different ways a performance can contribute to goals, let’s dig deeper. After all, defense is about more than just preventing goals just as it’s about more than blocked shots, thrown hits, and closed gaps. How does Klingberg perform across all-three zones? If we’re rating Klingberg by what he does in the neutral zone, how does he stack up to his peers? What kind of residual offense, or efficiencies does he leave behind?

Not only does he compare favorably, over the last five seasons, Klingberg even exceeds Josi in multiple categories: primary assists, point shot set ups, high danger shot assists, controlled entries, exits with possession, exit attempts, etc. This can’t be understated enough; a forward may replace Klingberg in goals, but how much can a top six forward replace the total offense that Klingberg would leave behind if Dallas either trades him or lets him walk?

Like Josi, Klingberg has one weakness: defending zone entries. Here, I recognize my bias. I think that defense (or lack thereof) in the defensive zone is something teams can, and should (depending on the player) live with. Offense is harder to create, and Klingberg creates it at an elite level. Now, if Klingberg were just a decent, 30-point defender, those defensive stats would be harder to live with, but he’s not. In addition, I believe weaknesses can be managed. Just look at the stark difference between Klingberg’s transitional performance under Hitchcock versus Bowness. Klingberg’s static defense in the defensive zone was still mediocre. But Hitchcock’s system made his weaknesses palatable by cleaning them up — for example, he was actively good at breaking up passes that year — while leveraging his strengths (which were better that year) to offset those weaknesses.

Bowness is often credited as a Hitchcock “clone” but there’s a difference between a defensive system (Hitchcock), and an outright passive system (Bowness). Dallas’ offense looks disjointed precisely because they position themselves to protect high danger areas, which keeps things tight, but too tight to create turnovers the other way, as Jack Han noted in September. Without speed through the neutral zone, it’s harder for zone exits to become zone entries, which is more likely to fuel scoring than constant dump-ins. In other words: the current approach inhibits everything that makes Klingberg special. This isn’t even subtext. It’s right there in Bowness’ words. ‘Who needs one of the game’s most gifted blueliner leading the play?’

Something else we don’t talk about: Klingberg’s ability to be efficient against the game’s best.

The ability to be effective under pressure is a better way, in my opinion, to think about tough competition than simply “good in the defensive zone against elite dudes.” Quality competition is hard to define. We know things are different on the road, as I wrote in D Magazine. But what’s the difference between quality players on the opposite side versus a quality system on the opposite side?

Allan Mitchell, one of Edmonton’s beat writers, has a fun little formula for what you might call ‘high pressure situations’. Using PuckIQ, he looks at how often a player is deployed against elite competition, the unblocked shot differential within those minutes (or DFF PCT), and unblocked shot differential within those minutes compared to the rest of the team (or DFF% RC). How PuckIQ defines elite competition is more defined and thoughtful than “good guys versus bad guys.”

I thought it’d be interesting to compare the numbers between Klingberg, and Esa Lindell since it’s Lindell’s contract that is more likely to price Klingberg out of Dallas. Not only is Lindell the guy who “allows Klingberg to be Klingberg” but he’s also supposed to be the guy that gets it done defensively in high pressure situations. Needless to say, the results are not as intuitive as you’d think:

Essentially, Klingberg’s game in high pressure situations didn’t truly falter until the injury-riddled campaign of Ruff’s final year and the Bowness era. Otherwise, compared to Lindell against elite competition:

  • Klingberg has more seasons playing more minutes against the elite.
  • His management between offense and defense within those minutes are more likely to tilt in his (and by proxy, Dallas’) favor.
  • The team is more likely to manage offense and defense better with Klingberg on the ice than without him against the elite.
  • Lindell has only had one season where he was a net positive in terms of the shot share he generated/suppressed within those minutes, or wherein the team wasn’t a net positive without him.  /

In some ways, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Klingberg is great at offense. When a goal is needed, it will be the opponent’s best players looking to stop him; further proof that great offense is a communal performance rather than a personal one, and therefore something to preserve (even at great costs). Ovechkin doesn’t score in the same spot, on the same PP, by accident. Teams know he’s there. He just gives his teammates too much room for opponents to ignore them too.

And yet Lindell’s contract is exactly what Dallas implies Klingberg’s could be: a cost too great in proportion to the value added. People talk about Mattias Ekholm, Jaccob Slavin, Hampus Lindholm, and Christopher Tanev as comparables to Lindell. But look at five season’s worth of transition data and compare them to Lindell’s: his performance is nowhere near their overall contribution in terms of zone entry defense, zone exits, zone entries, forechecking defense, and shot/pass contributions —  not even close. All of them either don’t make what Lindell makes now, or didn’t make what he did at a comparable age.

This is what I don’t get about Dallas being willing to lose Klingberg in a vacuum. They’re willing to pay above market value for Lindell’s defense in one zone, but they aren’t willing to pay Klingberg at market value for his above average offense across all zones?

I understand that the question of Klingberg’s value is also a question of his future value. But that kind of analysis should not come down to — as Elliotte Friedman suggested last week — Dallas’ reaction to the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin contracts. After all, what distinguishes their contracts from Drew Doughty or Kris Letang, who are having great years? If they’re worried about the tail end of his future contract, then why wasn’t that a factor in signing Ryan Suter for four seasons?

Is my bias missing something here? Possibly. Is my bias causing me to underrate the importance of defense? Also possible. But I also believe that defense, unlike game-changing offense, can be taught. The Stars themselves are a perfect example. Who knew the high flying Stars led by Benn, Seguin, and John Klingberg had it in them to one day become the lockdown crew they are now?

The real question is whether or not Stars management can come to terms with their bias. Are they willing to see Klingberg for who he can be under different personnel, with a more offensively-inclined game? Or are they committed to being defensively-inclined? Is Bowness just the figurehead of a defensive philosophy management believes can, and will, succeed? They certainly seem to be making preparations: this season, Klingberg has the lowest average TOI he’s had…ever.

I do believe there’s a world where Dallas can live without Klingberg. Toronto replaced Zach Hyman with Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase (and technically Nick Ritchie too, but I can’t make my point look bad now can I?) Carolina replaced Dougie Hamilton with Ethan Bear and Tony DeAngelo. Those were savvy moves that ended up paying huge dividends at half the cost. Theoretically, there’s a blueprint. But how did we get here?

How did we get to life in ‘Big D’ potentially without Klingberg, it’s most potent defensive weapon since Sergei Zubov?

I’ll take a crack at this one: we got here because Dallas’ original inclination (scoring goals) changed as soon as it failed in the playoffs in 2015-2016. Has the current inclination (stopping goals) changed again? If they’re willing to lose Klingberg in a season they brought in Ryan Suter, then isn’t that kind of the implication? Do they see what’s happened to the defensive systems of the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and Montreal Canadiens — and are having seconds thoughts about their second thoughts?

That’s the kicker for me. Without a hockey bias towards a specific philosophy, then keeping Klingberg or trading him effectively makes no difference. I think that’s why this drama doesn’t sit well with me. It feels like a mere reaction: the same way Valeri Nichushkin’s buyout was a reaction, or their loss to the Blues in the playoffs was a reaction.

Worse than having a bias with no self-awareness of its limits, Dallas doesn’t seem to have any at all. They’re here to “win now!” Unfortunately that’s neither a bias, nor a vision, and it doesn’t signal a deep knowledge of anything except a slogan they can use to reassure ticket buyers. Perhaps Klingberg’s absence is something else Dallas thinks can ‘take care of itself.’

Spoiler alert: it won’t.