The minute the Dallas Stars signed John Klingberg to his seven-year contract extension in April 2015, it was pretty likely they were getting a massive bargain. He was fresh off a tremendous debut season in which he led all rookie defensemen in points with 40 despite appearing in just 65 games. The Stars were offering him long-term stability and a massive raise, one that required projecting out his career using a small sample size, but if he sustained anything close to his rookie-season production, his value would quickly exceed the contract’s $4.25-million AAV.
That’s exactly what happened. Across the first 6.5 seasons of his contract, Klingberg has performed as one of the better pure puck-moving blueliners in the NHL. From his sophomore season, 2015-16, through present day, he’s ninth among defensemen in points, 10th in even-strength points and ninth in power-play points. He’s finished sixth in the Norris Trophy vote twice. In every season of his career, the Stars have owned a significant shot-attempt advantage with Klingberg on the ice. His possession numbers are buoyed by his offense, of course, rather than his defense, but that’s OK. We know who he is at this point: more of a one-way player, but the one way is really effective.
We also know he’s due a gargantuan raise on his next contract. He’s a UFA this summer, and he’s a strong bet to double his AAV and flirt with $8 million per season on his next contract. He plays a premium position as a right-shot defenseman, the sheer number of interested parties will drive up his price and, because he played at an AAV well below his worth for his entire prime, he needs to score “set for life” money to compensate. He’ll be 30 by the time his next deal starts and thus qualifies as a classic “get paid for what he did rather than what he’s going to do” trap, but the interested teams won’t care. They’ll be paying him for what he can bring in the short term and can worry about his decline later. It’s the league-wide pattern. That’s why the San Jose Sharks ponied up to keep Erik Karlsson and why the New Jersey Devils went all-in for Dougie Hamilton and so on.
It doesn’t appear the Stars will be the ones shelling out major coin for Klingberg after this season, however. They have $22.46 million in cap space allotted for next season with some crucial RFAs to re-sign in left winger Jason Robertson, right winger Denis Gurianov and goaltender Jake Oettinger. Even if Gurianov and Oettinger go the bridge-contract route, Robertson’s outstanding start to his career has vaulted him into long-term contract territory if that’s what he wants. Re-signing Klingberg for $8 million, give or take, would put a serious squeeze on GM Jim Nill. Handing grizzled Ryan Suter a multi-year contract last summer rather than a one-year deal might be what pushes Klingberg out of town.
Klingberg seems to understand his fate. Speaking to the media about stalled extension talks last week, he expressed that, “As a player, I don’t feel that I’ve been appreciated.” That certainly sounds like someone preparing to test the market this summer. Typically, there would be no urgency to trade him right now, as the Stars could wait until the deadline gets closer. But the stakes have been raised since, according to some reports last week, he requested a trade. If his relationship with the team is fractured irreparably, keeping him around runs the risk of poisoning the dressing-room culture. Then again, he publicly backtracked the rumors later last week, suggesting he still wants to be a Star but doesn’t feel it’s likely to happen beyond this season.
So what does Nill do, then? Despite holding a .538 points percentage, Dallas sits sixth in the uber-competitive Central Division. It doesn’t hold a wild-card spot at the moment but has games in hand on almost every team in the West. The playoffs are still very much in play. Does that mean the Stars must hold Klingberg as a “free rental” for the stretch run? Or should they sell him off now since they seem almost guaranteed to lose him for nothing this off-season and he doesn’t want to play for them anymore?
Which teams would be the best fits for an immediate Klingberg trade? Five potential destinations stand out.
I mentioned the Bruins as a landing spot for Jakob Chychrun earlier this week, as they need more help on the left side of their D-corps than the right, but Chychrun is 23 and signed for four more seasons at a great price, so he’ll cost considerably more than Klingberg would. The Bruins probably don’t have sufficient prospect depth to meet any price for Chychrun but could afford Klingberg. The return of Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron’s impending free agency give this season a “one last ride” feel. Klingberg could give the team’s puck movement a nice lift. Charlie McAvoy obviously brings a lot on the right side already, but he’s such an all-around force that he’s asked to do a lot more than just score.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Kings sent a message that they wanted to take a large step forward and transition from rebuilder to fringe contender when they traded for right winger Viktor Arvidsson and signed center Phillip Danault and defenseman Alexander Edler in the off-season. So far, so good, as the Kings currently sit third in the Pacific Division. They’ve gotten there on the strength of their defensive play and 5-on-5 play driving. What they lack so far is the fine finishing skill. They own one of the worst 5-on-5 team shooting percentages in the NHL, and their power play grades out 25th. Assuming coach Todd McLellan could find a way to make Klingberg coexist with fellow righty Drew Doughty, Klingberg could augment the power play and help get the L.A. shooters in better scoring positions in 5-on-5 action.
With such a deep farm system, too, the Kings have plenty of secondary prospects they could package in a bid for Klingberg.
The Wild could use Klingberg immediately. They’re holding their own in the vicious Central, but they’re ravaged by injuries and COVID-19. Half their starting D-corps is out of the lineup right now: Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Alex Goligoski. Spurgeon is still week to week with a lower-body injury. Klingberg could be welcome relief in the short term and, for the rest of the season, could help a power play that has struggled in 2021-22.
The Predators were supposed to be sellers last season. Instead, they kept winning until they made the playoffs and ended up re-signing defenseman Mattias Ekholm. Pending UFA left winger Filip Forsberg is the subject of trade speculation now but, heck, Nashville is 24-12-2. Might GM David Poile adopt a buyer mentality? Klingberg could replace the right-handed puck movement they lost when they traded Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers last summer.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Should the Isles be pursuing a big-ticket acquisition when they currently hold a .483 points percentage and sit sixteen points out of a playoff spot? Well, they’ve played the fewest games of any NHL team, they have more remaining home games than any other team, they’re 6-2-2 in their past 10 games, and they entered this season with Stanley Cup aspirations. Their No. 1 righthanded defenseman, Ryan Pulock, hasn’t played in two months thanks to a lower-body ailment. When healthy, he’s a crucial all-around horse for the Isles, but his blistering shot hasn’t translated to the power-play presence it should be on paper. Klingberg could give the Isles a degree of offense they really don’t have at the moment, albeit Noah Dobson is in the midst of a breakout season.
If the Isles continue to improve as their schedule normalizes, don’t be surprised if GM Lou Lamoriello wades into the trade waters. He’s been a mid-season upgrader throughout his storied career.
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