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Maple Leafs need struggling Klingberg to find his game

John Klingberg Minnesota Wild John Klingberg - Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

What will defenceman John Klingberg look like this season in blue and white?

Don’t read that question in the literal sense – we know he’ll be wearing the number three, and we know he’s going to get ample minutes in the top four of Sheldon Keefe’s lineup. I’m more curious about who Klingberg is as a player, particularly now as a 31-year-old blueliner with nearly 700 games of experience.

At his peak, Klingberg was a high-end offensive contributor from the back end who could ignite teams through elite transitional play. But Klingberg’s production has materially waned in recent years, and recent stints with the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild were unimpressive. It’s part of the reason Toronto was able to land the former 67-point defenceman on a relatively cheap deal this summer.

Though I do think there’s a genuine debate as to whether Klingberg was a need or a luxury, especially for a team against the salary cap ceiling, I think the more important question concerns what the Maple Leafs can get from the former Dallas Stars draft pick this season.

A good Klingberg would be a boon to Toronto’s playoff chances, to state the obvious. But a good Klingberg would also be an intriguing trade deadline asset to dangle towards another contender, especially considering a stable of capable defenders behind him on the depth chart.

But Toronto may be facing an uphill battle. Klingberg’s play has deteriorated in rapid fashion over the past few years, transitioning from a quality first-pairing option to the type of skater a coach might worry about when he’s on the ice.

In Klingberg’s case, the issue is two-fold: his offensive impact has started to wane because he’s spending so much more time off-puck, defending the run of play in his own zone. The defensive numbers in particular are horrifying, and though 50 games with the Anaheim Ducks organization last season might explain a small piece of it, it’s part of a broader and longer stretch where Klingberg’s pairing has struggled:

Contextually speaking, the breakdown in Klingberg’s play over the past few years may correlate to some degree with the pairings he’s played on. Klingberg has, generally speaking, played with his team’s best offensive weaponry – his most common forward teammates over the past three seasons are Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson, Jamie Benn, and Roope Hintz. That’s surely paid dividends towards his offensive play.

He’s played almost all of these minutes with either Esa Lindell or Ryan Suter on the blueline, which has been Rick Bowness’ (and, more recently, Peter DeBoer’s) attempt at providing Klingberg some defensive stability, affording him the ability to play a riskier, up-tempo, north-south style of play.

While that may be true, it does burden Klingberg with being the primary puck mover. And increasingly, that’s become something of a mistake factory for Klingberg. Those mistakes lead to scoring chances against, and some of those scoring chances end up in the back of the net. That trend has sustained itself over the last few years:

Brad Treliving’s bet with Klingberg is a small one contractually speaking, but owing to the pressure of delivering a title in the Core 4 era, the team needs him to jump into the lineup and immediately contribute.

There’s no doubt Klingberg’s individual skill set should be an asset for Toronto when they are pressing the attack, but it remains to be seen how the team plans to insulate Klingberg, and whether the Maple Leafs have the coaching staff and personnel required to rehabilitate one of the league’s true offensive defencemen.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference