For some time now, the Dallas Stars have ranked among the NHL’s most frustrating teams because, while they boast some outstanding high-end talent, they’ve rarely put it all together.
You might chalk a portion of that irked feeling to unfair expectations created by the dazzling early days with Tyler Seguin injected into the lineup, but still.
It’s probably unfair to dismiss the first season under Jim Montgomery as “same old, same old” for a simple reason: injuries.
To be more precise, the Stars – for all of their stumbles – hadn’t really dealt with the absence of near-Norris-level defenseman John Klingberg very often until 2018-19. He played every game in 2017-18, missed only two in 2016-17, and suited up for 76 in 2015-16, so missing six weeks is not a normal experience for the slick Swedish defenseman.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Klingberg is pumped to play against the Blackhawks on Thursday, representing his first bit of action since Nov. 8.
While rust might be a factor, Klingberg indicates that his recovered hand should be just about good as new, as he noted to The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub required).
“It can’t get any worse or re-injured by playing,” Klingberg said. “As long as there isn’t a shot to the exact same place at the exact same angle.”
(Aside: did anyone else hear ominous music in their head when they read about Klingberg saying the “exact same place at the exact same angle?” Probably just me, after reading Bobby Ryan discuss why he was unhappy that Kyle Turris was slashing at his hand[s] before their unexpected fight.)
Beyond wins and losses, the Stars have been disappointing because they merely haven’t always been as exciting on the ice as they seem on paper, considering the fact that they’re ranked sixth-lowest at goals for and fifth-lowest at goals against.
It’s easy to forget how much of a difference Klingberg can make in altering the pace of Stars games.
Through 16 games this season, Klingberg had a whopping 13 points. Some of that was unsustainable (11.6 is a very high shooting percentage for a defenseman, well above Klingberg’s already-fairly-high 7.3 career average), but Klingberg is one of the NHL’s most explosive scoring defensemen, however you slice it.
He was also seeing an even bigger role under Montgomery, averaging a substantial 25:03 TOI per game, up from last season’s previous career-high of 24:04. Losing an elite defenseman who played almost half of every Stars game? Yeah, that will do a number on your transition game, not to mention overall play (as Klingberg is excellent from a possession standpoint at this stage of his career).
It’s also enticing to realize that the Stars could rapidly approach the sort of modern, puck-moving defense that thrives in the current NHL.
Esa Lindell and Miro Heiskanen have both been taking on significant minutes lately, and could each make sensible partners for Klingberg, what with Klingberg being a right-handed blueliner and those two being lefties. (At the moment, it looks like Lindell will go with Klingberg.)
Now, sure, it would be even more exciting if Julius Honka would also get in that space-age, top-six mix, but maybe that would be too greedy?
Speaking of lineups, these thoughts bring up another note: the Dallas Morning News’ Matthew DeFranks points out that the Stars have only had all of Klingberg, Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov in the same lineup for seven of 34 games so far in 2018-19.
As of this writing, the Stars sit at ninth place in the West with a 17-14-3 record (37 points in 34 games). They’re two points behind second wild card Edmonton, who have 39 points in an extra game (18-14-3), so the Stars aren’t far off.
For all we know, Klingberg could stand as the difference between Dallas making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or once again coming up painfully short.
MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.