I think the first hockey game I ever attended was on April 16, 1995. I couldn’t even tell you the score from the game to this day. My only memories are the brawl and my father being so disgusted by it that he stormed out swearing the sport off while my mom cheered on. To this day I’m not entirely sure what amuses me more.
I didn’t have any rooting interest. I only now know that Craig Ludwig got thrown out before the brawl or that Andy Moog and Ed Belfour both got penalties for leaving the crease. The sport kept growing on me, but it really took hold for me once the Dallas Stars acquired Sergei Zubov.
Zubov was and is most everything I love about hockey. He was so smooth with the puck and so calm under pressure. He had otherworldly vision for a defenseman. He never won a major award, so he’ll probably never get the credit he deserves -- yet there is no Stanley Cup banner hanging in the American Airlines Center without him.
His career took off when he was 23 and 24 years old. His point totals dropped after the Stars acquired him, but he was an elite two-way defender who had amazing vision and playmaking ability. Zubov settled into the system the Stars played and flourished.
I often watch John Klingberg and marvel at how much skill he brings to the position. From day one in the NHL, when he was 22 years old, Klingberg has been a key part of things in Dallas. Early on, his defense was a question -- it still probably is honestly -- but over time he has continued to develop into a top-flight blueliner. At 25, Klingberg is having easily the best season of his career.
You’ve started to hear the two compared a little more this season, but not much. The idea that the Stars could have someone on that level again seems to make people nervous about the comparison, for good reason. Would you believe that the average 82-game season for Zubov produced only one more point than the average Klingberg season to this point in his career? Klingberg for his career averages 58 points for every 82 games, and that number keeps going higher with how rapidly he’s racking up points this year.
Klingberg is on pace for 75 this year. That would be the second-most in franchise history for a defenseman. It would be the most in Dallas history, besting Zubov’s top Stars season by four. Of the top 15 seasons by a Stars defenseman in Dallas, six of the top eight are by Zubov. The other two are Klingberg’s last two seasons. Darryl Sydor picks up most of the remaining spots, for the record.
Why has Klingberg kicked it up to another level this year? Sometimes the easiest answer is the most obvious. Ken Hitchcock’s system has brought stability to the entire roster. There may be times when the system is boring, and boring is predictable. Predictable isn’t always the worst thing in the world if you’re trying to move the puck out of your own end. How often do you see Klingberg stuck in his own end defending because forecheckers are all over him and he can’t make a pass? How often do you see him turn the puck over because he has no option for a pass? The system keeps things simple and allows a gifted offensive defenseman like Klingberg the opportunity to react and make a play. It’s a match made in heaven.
The case of Zubov is a prime example of why hype should build around Klingberg for the Norris Trophy. If you give just one piece of hardware to Zubov, he’s probably already in the Hall of Fame. We’re a long way off from putting Klingberg in the Hall, but in the long run every bullet point counts. He has a five-point lead in defenseman scoring on John Carlson and he’s seven up on Brent Burns and Victor Hedman (who is about to miss 3-6 weeks).
This season, Klingberg has shown he’s as good as any defenseman in the league. Without him, the Stars aren’t where they are. It’s time that he gets the recognition that Zubov never got. Playing in Dallas shouldn’t exclude such a skilled player from picking up hardware. Klingberg will end up being the best or second-best defenseman in the history of the Stars being in Dallas, and easily the best one they’ve drafted and developed. If you never got to witness Zubov in action, take the time to appreciate what you get to see from Klingberg on a nightly basis. Guys on that level don’t come around often.