Here’s to Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg for always speaking his mind.
More on Klingberg’s mind in a moment, but first a little John Klingberg history lesson.
I worked for the Dallas Stars during the 2017-18 season, covering the team.
If my memory is not faulty, the first face-to-face conversation I had with the smooth-skating Dallas defender was in the Stars’ locker room one morning. A crowded Stars locker room.
I had tweeted a caustic comment about Klingberg’s play in a loss to Nashville the previous night.
I believe I might have used the word "embarrassing."
Klingberg was not pleased. In fact, he was most displeased. And he let me know, in very colorful language, what he thought of my assessment.
And that was that. We continued to come to the same workplace every day and the moment was never mentioned again. He needed to clear the air, which he did and I learned a valuable lesson about being more precise with my language.
Later that season I spent some one-on-one time with Klingberg after he was selected to play in his first NHL All-Star Game.
We talked about his relationship with his family, especially his grandfather, who used to take him to Frolunda games when Klingberg was growing up in Sweden. And his own belief in his own skills, even when he faced adversity early in his career while playing in neighboring Finland. The All-Star weekend in 2018 marked a kind of coming-out party for Klingberg, whose name had started to come up in Norris Trophy talk around the league. To be in Tampa at the All-Star Game with countrymen Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, to not just be among the NHL’s elite defensemen, but to be recognized as such, was in some ways a defining moment for Klingberg.
Later, when I was at The Athletic, I pitched doing a series of stories where I would go and have dinner with players and coaches. It was middling idea, poorly executed, but the first person I approached about the idea was Klingberg. He quickly agreed to be the guinea pig for the first in the short-lived series.
I remember Tyler Seguin being mystified that Klingberg would agree to such a thing.
“I would never, ever do that,” Seguin said. “Talk at the arena during the day? Sure. But go out for dinner with a reporter? Not a chance.”
But that was Klingberg. He is a man who very much marches to his own beat.
We had sushi, steak and a nice wine in Dallas. I must admit I was a bit anxious about the whole thing, yet Klingberg proved to be excellent company. We talked about all kinds of stuff, family, careers, the whole nine yards. As he had been from that moment in the Stars’ locker room early in the season, Klingberg was thoughtful and honest. I believe that honesty and his steadfast belief in himself have been cornerstones of what has been a sparkling NHL career. It’s what has made him an important part of the Dallas leadership group and one of the most popular players on the team.
That honesty was on full display the other day when he spoke about disappointed he was in how contract talks had gone with the Stars as he approaches the end of his current seven-year deal.
I recall talking about the contract during that dinner. Klingberg signed deal after a tremendous rookie season in 2014-15 that saw him collect 40 points the most any first-year defenseman that season.
He knew there was a risk that the $4.25 million cap hit might leave him significantly underpaid by league standards if he continued to produce offense at a similar clip. But as a fifth-round pick who seemed to come out of nowhere, with some lingering concerns about some previous injury issues, the security of a seven-year deal was enticing. This being a time before seemingly every NHL team was rushing to lock up young players for as long as they could as early as they could in a player’s career, there was a risk on the Stars’ part in making such a commitment to a player with only one season under his belt.
Klingberg, of course, has turned out to be an absolute bargain. Maybe one of the greatest bargains of the salary cap era. He’s collected 344 points in 505 games, putting him ninth among all NHL defensemen in points production over that time. He has 34 points in 52 postseason games, delivering a virtuoso performance in the bubble playoffs in 2020 with 21 points in 26 playoff games, as the Stars shocked most observers by advancing to the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay. He skates effortlessly, he logs big minutes, he quarterbacks one of the top power plays in the NHL and has for much of his career been one of the league’s best at moving laterally at the offensive blue line and getting the puck to the net.
Given the kind of player he has become and given the fact that this season 76 other NHL defensemen are making more money than Klingberg, one could hardly blame him for looking forward to the end of his current deal.
He has, in some ways, been biding his time, waiting for now, waiting to be paid. His next contract would be his chance to earn a salary that would be commensurate with his talents and his production. The timing is also crucial, too. Klingberg is 29. If he’s looking at term anywhere beyond five years, this next deal will take him to his mid-30s or beyond. He is a father now, so issues of security and providing for the future give the entire process a different texture.
In short, this next deal should be a life-changer for Klingberg and his family.
Even with the flat cap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, elite defenders have been breaking the bank. Seth Jones will start on his eight-year, $76-million contract next season. Roman Josi, Cale Makar and Dougie Hamilton all have new — or relatively new — deals that pay them $9 million or slightly more per year on average.
Alex Pietrangelo is at $8.8 million and Klingberg’s protégé in Dallas, Miro Heiskanen, is at $8.45 million per year against the cap.
So Klingberg will get his wish. He will get paid. That much seems certain.
But it’s just not likely going to happen in Dallas.
Did we mention Heiskanen? The 21-year-old whizz, the third-overall pick in 2017, is the future of the Dallas blue line.
Let’s say that Klingberg is due somewhere between $7.5 million and $9 million against the cap per year. Can the Stars afford to have north of $16 million tied up in two defenders? Throw in Esa Lindell’s $5.8 million cap hit and Ryan Suter’s $3.65 million – both of those players are under contract through 2024-25 – and now you’re looking at $25 or $26 million a year against the cap in four blueliners.
Add in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who combine for a cool $19.35 million in annual cap hit, and now that’s better than half the team’s cap allotment on six players. The math simply doesn’t seem to work. Or it doesn’t seem to.
And that likely explains why the Stars didn’t come up with an offer that made sense to Klingberg, when he was hoping to get an extension done before the start of this season. It also explains that, according to Klingberg, Dallas GM Jim Nill has given agent Peter Wallen permission to talk to other GMs, presumably about what a long-term deal elsewhere looks like.
“He agreed that we could start talking with other GMs and see where we were at,” Klingberg told reporters after reports surfaced that he asked for a trade. “Negotiation-wise with the Stars it has been very quiet.”
It’s sad, in a way, given how much the Stars have meant to Klingberg and he has meant to them. But he noted in his press briefing the other day, it’s a business, and the business of keeping the Dallas Stars tracking forward with young talent like Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov and Jake Oettinger all needing to get paid in the next few years, will require some wizardly gymnastics by Nill to make it happen that Klingberg gets paid and stays in Dallas.
The bigger question is that if Klingberg is a goner, does Nill try and maximize his return by trying to move the native of Gothenburg before the March 21 trade deadline rather than watch a prime asset walk out the door with no return when the free-agent market opens this summer?
Klingberg does not have any trade protection so Nill has lots of flexibility to make a move if he wants to and the return, especially if a team like say the Boston Bruins or New York Islanders are looking at locking up Klingberg long-term, should be significant.
But complicating an already complicated situation is that the Western Conference playoff picture is a bit of a dog’s breakfast and the Stars are right in the mix, four points back as of Tuesday morning, with games in hand, even though they’ve definitely run hot and cold this season. Klingberg has also seen his productivity dip with one goal and 17 points in 27 games.
Still, all signs seem to point to these being the final weeks, maybe months, of Klingberg’s tenure in Dallas. And that’s something that should resonate for everyone in Klingberg’s orbit.