In the NHL’s off-season game of musical chairs this summer, there was one seat remaining as the music wound down. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be for the best defenseman available in free agency.
John Klingberg signing a one-year, $7-million contract with the Anaheim Ducks was not on the radar of even the most well-connected insider at the start of free agency.
But in the end, the match — between the highly skilled defenseman and a Ducks organization seeking to be competitive in the here and now — may turn out to be the best outcome for both the team and the player.
The NHL regular season starts for the Ducks on Wednesday at home against the Seattle Kraken, and the offensive-minded Klingberg was the biggest addition of an active summer for general manager Pat Verbeek.
If the Ducks make meaningful improvements in the standings, it will be because of newcomers such as Klingberg, Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano supplementing an intriguing young core led by Trevor Zegras.
But the key piece of the puzzle was clearly Klingberg, the 29-year-old Swede who took a short-term contract with the Ducks — as opposed to long-term security elsewhere — as a pure bet on himself.
“Who else should you bet on? You should always bet on yourself,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “Some people don’t believe they can do it. A lot of times we all have different dreams, different thoughts, ‘I really want to do this.’ Then we immediately start talking ourselves out of it.
“We’re afraid to step out of our comfort zones and really truly bet on ourselves. That’s what John Klingberg has done. He’s betting on himself. I love his mindset on it. The kid is in competition with himself, in competition with the league, and he wants our team to win every day.”
To start, Klingberg’s partner will be Cam Fowler.
“I always thought Cam was such an underrated player,” said Klingberg. “Skating is what makes him so good defensively. He’s smart too, and always in the right position. With the puck, you see him just floating around making really good plays. Honestly, for me, a dream partner.”
They’ve played only two full games together in the preseason, but establishing chemistry isn’t a concern because of their experience and approach.
“I think you could go grab somebody off the street and put them with those guys and they would find a way to have chemistry,” Eakins said.
Defenseman Jamie Drysdale will be on the second pair with newcomer Dmitry Kulikov — who was acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Aug. 31 — and was gushing about the Fowler-Klingberg duo after the Ducks’ final preseason game on Saturday against the Kings in Los Angeles.
“Cam and Klinger were absolutely gliding out there all over the ice,” Drysdale said. “He (Klingberg) moves so well. You watch him and you play against him a couple of times in Dallas, but you don’t really know what he’s capable of and what he does on the ice until he’s on your team.
“You just build an appreciation for it. They’re just flying around on the ice, making it look like it’s a two-on-five, and they’re doing pretty well out there.”
Klingberg dismisses the widely held belief that an offensive-minded defenseman has to be balanced by a more conservative partner.
“Back in the day, coaches and media and everyone was saying that an offensive player should play with a defensive player,” he said. “But I don’t look at it that way at all. I want to play with a player that’s thinking the game the same way as I do. Then you can create two-on-ones everywhere and the breakout and stuff like that. That’s what made me successful when I came into the league playing with (Alex) Goligoski.”
Goligoski was an important early influence in Dallas. What truly helped Klingberg reach the next level with the Stars was the arrival in 2017-18 of head coach Ken Hitchcock and veteran assistant Rick Wilson.
“I was a little scared when they hired him,” said Klingberg of Hitchcock. “Things that you know you probably had to change in your game. But you know what? He came in and he got me to understand how to be the best of me. He wanted me to be myself, but he taught me some stuff that helped the game to understand how to take it to the next level.
“They knew what kind of a player I was and wanted to keep me as the player I was. What they taught me was not trying to make the cute play all the time. Instead of trying to go through guys, they wanted me to go around, and all of a sudden I just saw myself not turning the puck over as much.”
Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup, in 1999, in his first run with the Stars and is the fourth-winningest coach in NHL history behind Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz. Hitchcock said he and Wilson recognized Klingberg’s special qualities and challenged him in training camp. Klingberg responded with a career-high 67 points in 2017-18.
“We felt he could be one of the most complete players in the world and he took huge steps,” Hitchcock said. “He had an amazing year and he grew as a player where you could trust him in any situation. We just thought he was way more competitive than people gave him credit for. With somebody this competitive and with his skill set, you could have a dominant player.
“For a small guy, he played really strong. He was really strong on the puck. We said, ‘Listen, these are some qualities we think if you embrace, you could really move your game to another level.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
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Klingberg felt some frustration in recent seasons in Dallas, in part as a byproduct of the more restrictive system employed by then-coach Rick Bowness, who is now in Winnipeg. Klingberg’s 47 points this past season were a far cry from the 67 points produced under Hitchcock’s watch in 2017-18.
He hasn’t played a regular-season game yet in Anaheim but had an immediate answer and a wide smile when asked if he was feeling more liberated in his new home.
“Yes,” answered Klingberg. “It’s been a frustrating two, three years — I’m not going to lie about that. “It is a challenge. But at the same time, I just feel happy I’m having fun playing hockey again.
“I feel like I can play my game out there and at the same time play really good off the puck. Obviously, my game is with the puck, but I feel like I have way more push from the coaches to do what you do — stick with the game plan — but do what you do. That feels good.”