John Klingberg one of the driving forces behind Stars’ success

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The Dallas Stars have one of the season’s breakthrough players in 19-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

He has been so good, so impactful, and so impressive at such a young age that his team’s starting goalie has already called him a “no doubt” Hall of Famer, and one of the best defenders he has ever played with. While it might be just a little early for Hall of Fame talk, the praise toward the No. 3 overall pick from 2018 is certainly justified because he has been great all season.

All of that praise and hype has made it a little too easy to overlook the performance of John Klingberg, Dallas’ other top defender.

So let’s take a few minutes to look at the impact he has made because he has been one of the best players in the postseason so far and a huge part of the Stars’ current run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If you have been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the Stars it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Klingberg has been excelling because he has been an outstanding defender for several years now. While his defensive play has sometimes been unfairly criticized, he has been an elite possession-driving, point-producing player since he arrived in Dallas, having already twice finished in the top-six in Norris Trophy voting.

But because the team around him has always been so top-heavy and so flawed in so many areas, he has never had an opportunity to truly shine on the league’s biggest stage or get the recognition other top defenders around the league tend to get. Reputations tend to be made in the playoffs, and Klingberg hasn’t had a chance to consistently play on this stage. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are just the second time in his career he has played in the postseason, and it has been some of the best hockey he has ever played in the NHL and a big reason why the Stars are in Round 2 and looking to get the upper-hand in their series against the St. Louis Blues.

He is simply operating at an elite level right now.

Entering play on Friday, there have been 26 defenders in the 2019 playoffs that have logged at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time.  Out of that group Klingberg ranks third in shot attempt differential, first in goal-differential, first in scoring-chance differential, and first in high-danger scoring chance differential (all via Natural Stat Trick). Along with the territorial domination, he also has eight points, including two goals, one of which was a series-clinching overtime goal in Round 1 against the Nashville Predators.

He is pretty much everything you want in a modern-day, top-pairing defender with his ability to skate, move the puck, join the rush, and help drive his team’s offense.

He is also one of the league’s biggest steals against the cap.

There are only six other defenders in the NHL that have produced as much offense on a per-game level as Klingberg over the past five seasons (Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Kris Letang, Victor Hedman, John Carlson, and Roman Josi). Other than Josi (who still only makes $4 million per season), every other player on that list makes north of $7.25 million per season.

The Stars have Klingberg signed for three more full seasons after this one at just $4.25 million per season, two years longer than what Nashville has Josi signed for.

When you combine that with the fact that Heiskanen still has two years remaining on his entry level deal, the Stars are going to get two potentially elite, two-way defenders, both of whom are capable of playing top-pairing minutes, for a grand total of just over $5 million against the salary cap. That is insane value.

General manager Jim Nill has made his share of mistakes over the years, but drafting Heiskanen at No. 3 overall and getting Klingberg on that contract has been a massive score for him and the organization. Defenders like this are really difficult to come by, and the Stars have two of them for way below market value for the next few years.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.