Stars’ John Klingberg benefiting from improved all-around game

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TAMPA — John Klingberg knows his name is in the mix for the Norris Trophy and he takes pride in that observers are noting how improved his all-around game has become since breaking into the NHL during the 2014-15 season.

It’s easy to see the offensive side of the 25-year-old Gothenburg, Sweden native. He’s hit double digits in goals in each of his first four NHL seasons and has six through 50 games this season with the Dallas Stars. Since his rookie season, Klingberg is third in the league among defenseman with 195 points and is fifth averaging 0.92 points per game.

What did Klingberg do differently over the summer to warrant such high praise? Not much, really. He trained in a similar fashion with his brother, Carl, who plays in Switzerland, Victor Svedberg of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs and Christian Folin of the Los Angeles Kings. It’s been more of a mental thing, he says.

“I just feel the whole team and myself have been really mentally prepared [since] summer to come into the season and really change things with how we want to be prepared as a team and how we want to play hockey,” Klingberg said during NHL All-Star Media Day. “From last year, it’s a lot of redemption with the disappointing season that we had and just coming in mentally prepared for this season.”

That mental prep has helped the Stars to the current wild spot they reside through 50 games. During the few days away from meaningful hockey games, Klingberg spent some time picking the brain of fellow Central Division All-Star Alex Pietrangelo, a fellow defenseman whose name has also been bandied about in the midseason Norris discussion. The Stars blue liner said he wanted to find out how Ken Hitchcock helped his game while coaching the Blues.

Pietrangelo evolved into a top defenseman and Klingberg’s entering that stratosphere. As his offensive game remains one of the best in the league among defenseman, he can sense his all-around game is catching up.

“I feel like my defensive game has evolved, but I feel right now the thing that has changed is that I’m making really good plays with the puck all the time,” he said. “I don’t get turnovers much and I don’t have to waste as much energy going back chasing the puck and playing defensively. I feel like I’ve been pretty good defensive player before that, I’m just not playing as much defense as I’ve done before.”

Klingberg’s offensive talents can be traced back to his youth when he started playing as a forward. At 15, he switched to defense, but the transition to the back end didn’t see the evaportation of those forward skills, which still help him today.

“You have the chance to make more skill plays when you’re playing forward and that’s something I brought to me when I played ‘D’ as well,” he said. “I didn’t want to change tactics too much. I didn’t think about it too much when I changed to ‘D’. But obviously that and playing pond hockey and playing street hockey in summers, that’s where you get all the skills.”

Klingberg was inspired as a young defenseman by Erik Karlsson. As both played in the Frolunda system, the Stars blue liner got to see the future Ottawa Senators captain on a regular basis, soaking in every aspect of his game. Karlsson would end up going in the first round in the 2008 draft, well on his way to an impactful professional career. Klingberg went in the fifth round two years later, but didn’t think the NHL was a realistic possibility.

“No, not at all. That was always the dream, but I knew there was always a lot of hard work ahead,” he said. “I feel like this is the first year I actually started to figure out how to play an all-around [game] and saving energy for playing that [many] minutes as well. That’s going to be a lot of credit to Hitchcock and how he changed my game — not a lot, just a little bit.

“It takes time to be a good defenseman in this league and I feel like I’m taking strides this year and I can only get better.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.