The State of Hockey was a bit blindsided when the Minnesota Wild traded for John Klingberg at the trade deadline. The Wild already had Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Calen Addison on the right side of the defense. They maybe needed a scoring forward to take the pressure off Kirill Kaprizov even worse, and this was before his injury.
So they got a right-shot defenseman who quarterbacks a power play, like Addison? They did indeed.
Last Monday, 10K Rinks wrote about how Klingberg provided the Wild with a potential game-breaking postseason presence. Today, though, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty about what he does for Minnesota’s blueline.
With four games under his belt, Klingberg has fit in nicely in Minnesota. The Wild out-scored their opponents 4-0 so far with him on the ice at 5-on-5, while on the positive side in the expected goals share, controlling 51.7% of the scoring chances. Predictably, he’s pushing the pace, too. The Wild are getting 2.73 expected goals per hour with him on the ice, second among the team’s defensemen.
Small sample size? Sure, but it checks out with Klingberg’s game, at least at his best. And the reason he is able to push the pace is that he does the thing Minnesota desperately needs from their blueline. He moves the puck.
Offense isn’t just the forwards’ responsibility. Plays often need to go out of the defensive zone and through the neutral before teams can threaten to score. Someone’s gotta move that puck, and on the Wild, that person is…
This year? Nobody?
Corey Sznajder tracks microstats as part of his All Three Zones project. So far, he’s recorded 17 Wild games, and the results for Minnesota’s transition game are pretty awful. Let’s start with how much the defensemen enter the offensive zone.
The defensemen get the puck into the offensive zone, but they’re almost never carrying it in. 73.1% of the time, they’re either dumping the puck or failing to enter the zone altogether. Now, Minnesota’s a forechecking team that can play dump-and-chase hockey. But the Wild only recover about 38% of their dump-ins.
So between the times they fail to enter the zone altogether and the times the opponent recovers the dump in, about 47.5% of their zone entry attempts result in the other team having the puck.
This isn’t a problem you can pin on one player, or even the usual scapegoats. Dumba and Alex Goligoski are the two Wild players who are above average at entering the zone and doing so with control. Even lauded puck-movers like Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin are struggling this season.
How does Klingberg help with that?
On a struggling Anaheim Ducks team, Klingberg still managed to carry the puck into the offensive zone on 50% of his attempts. Last season with the Dallas Stars, Klingberg entered the zone with control 53% of the time, on nearly nine attempts per hour. The Wild need that kind of puck movement, and they got it in Klingberg.
While Minnesota’s defensive unit might not be great at pushing the pace, you might chalk that up as a systems decision, not a deficiency among the Wild. Maybe they lean on their forwards to carry the puck in, or trust their forechecking to make a dump-and-chase game a positive.
So let’s look to the other end of the ice. There’s no strategic benefit in being hemmed into your own zone. No coach’s system would dictate defensemen get the puck, then not turn it up the ice, right? So why is Minnesota’s blueline sitting among the worst teams in the league in breaking the puck out of their zone?
If you wanted to make a short list of the worst teams in hockey this year, it probably would include the Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Arizona Coyotes, and Columbus Blue Jackets. Three of those four teams are bottom-four in the standings, and the “star” of the class, Ottawa, sits at 21st after a recent winning stretch. What do they all have in common?
Their defensemen don’t move the puck out of their zone. Minnesota’s firmly in that group, which goes a long way to explaining their 5-on-5 struggles. Only Spurgeon has a claim to being average at exiting his zone this year, at least with the data we have.
This is where having Klingberg (highlighted in the chart above) helps the offense. On a team full of players who couldn’t break out of their zone, Klingberg gets the puck in the defensive zone and moves it out. He has a lot of high-risk to his game. Klingberg is liable to make a bad decision leading to a failed exit. Weighed against the reward of preventing getting pinned in their own zone, though, that’s a risk Minnesota has to take.
It also needs to be mentioned that Klingberg was much more efficient at exiting the zone last year with the Stars. He carried the puck of out the defensive zone at a similar rate to workhorse defensemen like Brent Burns, Rasmus Dahlin, Shea Theodore, and Devon Toews.
Klingberg was also incredible at finding the puck in his own zone last season. Only Drew Doughty, Mattias Ekholm, and Chris Tanev both recovered the puck in the defensive zone more often and had those retrievals lead to successful exits.
We don’t have detailed microstats data on his first four games, but the eye test bears this out for Klingberg. It sure looks like he’s able to exit the zone cleanly, and it’s bearing out in him controlling 53.2% of the shot share in the last four games, the most on the Wild (admittedly in a small, small sample). That kind of puck movement is a breath of fresh air, and will be crucial to finding any sort of offensive punch with Kaprizov on the shelf.
All microstat data via All Three Zones. All other data is from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise specified.