NHL

Is John Klingberg still a top NHL trade candidate and what other blueliners could move?

Is John Klingberg still a top NHL trade candidate and what other blueliners could move?

John Klingberg finally got his first goal of the season this past Tuesday, but it was a biggie — tying a game late against the Detroit Red Wings that the Anaheim Ducks ultimately won in overtime. In their first 17 games, the Ducks have won five games — all in overtime. Or to put it another way, they have zero regulation wins, with the first quarter rapidly coming to a close. 

According to the NHL’s stats and information department, that’s closing in on a record. 

The most games to start a season before registering a regulation win is 20, which occurred during the 2017-18 season with the Arizona Coyotes. Arizona had two overtime wins, 15 regulation losses, and three overtime losses before finally winning in regulation. 

The 1999-00 Calgary Flames went 19 games without a regulation win — punctuated by five overtime wins, 12 losses, and two ties before their first win. The Ducks are currently third on the list, this week passing the 1943-44 New York Rangers, which was back when the NHL regular season started at a very sensible time (Oct. 30). It meant the Ranges didn’t win a game in regulation until Dec. 11. 

But that was still faster than the 1927-28 Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, Pirates!), who didn’t get a regulation win until Dec. 24, the day before Christmas, but ultimately recovered to finish third in the NHL’s five-team American Division. So maybe all is not lost for the Ducks after all.

Of course, the Ducks continue to check one important box for a rebuilding team — they are fun to watch, and completely unpredictable. Is it a formula for long-term success? 

Probably not. But on the other hand, that’s a far better way of rebuilding the brand than trying to squeeze out a lot of low-event losses, which usually accomplishes two things, neither of them good. 

It beats down player morale and numbs the fan base. That they don’t need. Thankfully, they have Trevor Zegras who, along with Troy Terry, both understand that it is, after all, show biz. 

But back to Klingberg, who landed in Anaheim on a one-year, “show me” contract after failing to land a big-ticket deal this past summer. Klingberg essentially bet on himself, and so far, the early returns aren’t great. But it hasn’t changed the fact that he will likely be the most attractive defensive rental on the market. He has a no-trade until Jan. 1, but that can, of course, be waived. The hope is that he rehabilitates his game and reputation, which would enhance the value that the Ducks could get for him.

Klingberg obviously isn’t the only new face in a new place having trouble getting used to his new team. 

Whether a player arrived via trade (Jonathan Huberdeau to Calgary) or in free agency (Johnny Gaudreau in Columbus), the transition isn’t always seamless. And I wonder if it isn’t harder for a player that’s spent his entire career with one organization, the way Klingberg did.

Remember, for years, Gaudreau learned to do things the Calgary way, Klingberg the Dallas way, and Huberdeau the Florida way. 

And now, they have to adapt to a new way — and there is no way of flipping the switch and making it happen automatically overnight. What you find is that some adapt quicker than others. Someone like Matthew Tkachuk, who gets to play in Florida now, was productive right from the get-go. Tkachuk is from a hockey family — his dad Keith played for two decades — and so from the start of his NHL career, he understood there was a mercenary element to the game and that at some point he might have to take his talents to South Beach (or Sunrise, if you want to get technical).

So much of that adaptability has to do with personality. Tkachuk has a little bit of that Zegras showmanship and flair in his game. It just seemed easier for him to say goodbye. 

The others carry themselves differently, probably spent more time looking internally and right now, are probably overthinking things. 

Ducks’ coach Dallas Eakins had an interesting thought on that post-game Tuesday, noting “when you’re in a place for so long, everybody kind of learns to go off of you. And now, when you come into a new place, you have to learn to go off of them.” That makes a lot of sense.

Eakins went on to add: “When you move around, you have to develop new habits. You just can’t keep being what you were somewhere else.” 

That second part of the Eakins comment made me stop and wonder if maybe just the opposite is true. If you’re an established pro, there’s risk attached to trying to reinvent yourself in a new place. Maybe you resolutely just have to be yourself and focus on the things you do well and that made you the player you are today. The greater risk for any player, in a new location, is trying to be something that he isn’t — which often results in trying to do too much. 

That’s chancy — and usually counterproductive. 

Huberdeau needs to make plays — but his new Flames teammates also need to finish the chances he creates for them. So far, it hasn’t quite happened. The chemistry in Calgary is still weirdly out of whack. 

Maybe the turnaround starts Saturday, when the Flames play an afternoon game against Huberdeau’s former team, the Panthers, the second stop on Calgary’s Eastern Conference road trip. Maybe that helps Huberdeau get the necessary closure to move on to the next phase of his professional life. 

Similarly, in injury-riddled Columbus, Gaudreau needs to find his niche, something that’s difficult with Patrick Laine out of the lineup for the second time this season because of injury. But as the early-season struggles of these and other players demonstrates, the chemistry on a line continues to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The best explanation I had came from a long-ago conversation with former NHL head coach Trent Yawney, now an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, who once ventured: 

“I don’t know if there’s an answer to chemistry on a line, but there’s usually one forward on every team who is a ‘Mr. Fixit’ guy. Put him on the line and either the line gets going, or it looks better. They complement lines and they’re low maintenance. You don’t have to worry about who’s showing up on Tuesday. They’re like tomato soup. They’re the same all the time.”

In Klingberg’s case, as a blueliner, he needs to drive the offense at one end, and limit the mistakes and turnovers — within reason — at the other. 

In Eric Stephen’s early-season Klingberg profile his former coach in Dallas, Ken Hitchcock, said Klingberg eventually played his best hockey after he learned to move the puck around people, not through people. It’s not a bad message for the Ducks to reinforce now. 

Kings’ third-line move for Fiala paying off

The Kings’ turnaround can be roughly traced to a tough, if difficult, decision coach Todd McLellan made earlier this season — that the chemistry between their expensive newcomer, Kevin Fiala, and Anze Kopitar, just wasn’t evolving the way they hoped it would.

So the Kings dropped Fiala to the nominal third line, promoted Gabe Vilardi to the top line and suddenly it all started to click.

The Kings had better overall three-line balance and Fiala is currently leading the team in scoring, with 18 points in 19 games, 13 of them at even strength, where he gets to see a lot of second- and third-pair defensemen.

It’s not unlike what Calgary coach Darryl Sutter is trying, experimenting with Huberdeau on a line with the underrated Mikael Backlund. It takes a bit of courage to do that, because when players sign those big contracts and are suddenly playing down the depth chart, everyone gets a little antsy. The overriding thought should be to do whatever works. Backlund is probably Calgary’s “Mr. Fixit.”

Does Klingberg to the Leafs make sense?

Toronto needs a defenseman, now that it looks as if Jake Muzzin could miss the rest of the season as a result of a cervical spine injury, which could be career threatening. The injury creates the cap space for general manager Kyle Dubas to kick tires on a possible replacement. But what do the Leafs really need on the blue line?

The focus must be playoffs, because that’s the priority for a Leafs team that perennially manages to get by just fine in the regular season. Is Klingberg the possible answer when it comes to postseason success? If you pulled the curtain back to the bubble playoffs at the end of the 2019-20 season, when Dallas advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, he contributed 17 points in 26 games.

If you get that version of him, the answer might be yes. Last year, in the first round, versus Calgary, when his contract with the Stars was running out, and the prospect of a big payday was front and center, Klingberg contributed just a single assist in seven games.

If you were to ask me today, I do not believe the Sharks’ Erik Karlsson will be traded this year, despite the fact that he’s off to a great start and new GM Mike Grier said that he’d listen to calls on Karlsson. Karlsson has a no-movement clause and he seems to enjoy playing and living in the Bay Area.

Four more points on Thursday night gave him 28 on the season, tied with Leon Draisaitl for second in the NHL behind Connor McDavid and a full eight points ahead of ahead of the Rangers’ Adam Fox, who is the league’s second-leading scorer among defensemen.

It’s been an extraordinary turnaround after Karlsson’s seasons fighting injury. Eventually, that Karlsson contract, which is so unwieldy, is going to make more sense. But for now, there’s still four years left after this one at a $11.5 million AAV per season. Even with salary retained, that’s a difficult contract to move.

Karlsson is 32, so we’ll see. My only caveat is I thought the same things about Joe Thornton that I now do of Karlsson — that Thornton would never leave San Jose because his family was entrenched there. Eventually, Thornton did move on, to pursue a Stanley Cup opportunity.

Defensemen on the move?

The current Leafs and Kings front offices have a history of making deals and L.A. is deep in right-shot defensemen. Either Matt Roy or Sean Walker could likely be had for the right price. The question is whether GMs with the assets to move — such as Arizona with Jakob Chychrun — wait it out until closer to the deadline, because the market for defensemen looks thin.

Or do they start dangling players now, on the grounds that time to fit into their new teams might convince teams to beef up their offers? It’ll be interesting.

Bruins finding success with aging core

Going into the season, Pittsburgh and Boston were linked in a lot of people’s minds because they were both teams with mature cores that had to make a choice. They had to decide whether they should eventually move on from the players that helped them win or roll back the same essential group and try to make one last stab at a Stanley Cup.

Both decided to stay the course, which earned them a heaping helping of scorn, from the percentage of fans who always believe blowing it up and starting over is a recipe for NHL success.

Instead, the Bruins brought David Krejci back from Czechia, re-signed Patrice Bergeron to a one-year extension and survived the early absences of Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy to become one of the real early-season success stories. They have won all 10 games at home thus far and if the Vezina Trophy voting were to occur today, it would be hard to ignore Linus Ullmark who, on the second year of that free-agent deal he signed two summers ago (four years, $20 million) is looking relaxed, confident and in control.

Ullmark is 12-1, the only regular goalie in the league with a goals-against average under two (1.89). He also boasts a .937 save percentage.

Ullmark’s greatest challenge for the Vezina at the moment would come from Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, who is the primary driving force behind the Jets’ 8-1-1 surge. This has them, on a points-percentage basis, atop the Central Division. Two seasons ago, the Jets were a strong dark horse choice for the Stanley Cup, and flopped. This season, they were largely an afterthought — and have flourished, despite losing their No. 2 winger, Nikolaj Ehlers, after only two games this season.

His return date remains murky. Ehlers was mostly replaced in the top six by Mason Appleton, but now he’s out indefinitely too. Against the Ducks on Thursday, a night when Teemu Selanne and Teppo Numminen were inducted into the Jets’ Hall of Fame, Kyle Connor finally snapped out of his goal-scoring slump.

Connor had 47 goals a year ago but was stuck at two until he contributed a hat trick to their winning cause. Still, they wouldn’t be close to this good, without Hellebuyck, who is just a shade behind Ullmark statistically (2.07 goals-against average, .935 save percentage). There’s no other way to put it: He’s been flat-out brilliant.

Goaltending, again, proving unpredictable

If goals-against average is your starting point, the top 10 of NHL goaltending illustrates the usual voodoo that characterizes the position. It includes:

No wonder so many of the GMs with underachievers between the pipes, had that blank, unfocused, “what-now?” look in their eyes when they gathered in Toronto earlier this week, following Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Talk about seeing best-laid plans blow up in front of their very eyes.

(Photo of John Klingberg: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)





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