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Three ways the Leafs can get the most out of John Klingberg

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Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
6 months ago
To say that the start of John Klingberg’s tenure in Toronto has been adventurous would be putting it lightly.
On one hand, he has four assists through the first five games (with his most recent one being on John Tavares’ OT winner from Saturday night) and has provided a different element to the power play that has not been used over the past few years. There were certainly some adjustments in getting accustomed to his new teammates’ tendencies, but he has certainly been as advertised on the offensive end.
The same can be said about his play in his own end because it has not been a pretty sight. Already one of the worst defencemen from an advanced metrics standpoint, Klingberg’s defensive numbers were at one point worse than during his brief time with the 2022-23 Ducks and has put his team in a tough spot numerous times due to his decision-making. His contract may only be on the books for this season, but his cap hit being $4.15 million has left fans feeling frustrated and on heels whenever he steps foot on the ice.
Right now, his shifts feel like the equivalent of opening a box of chocolate: there is no telling what we are going to get out of the 31-year-old. So instead of counting down the days until he is off to somewhere else in the league, the Leafs should be doing everything they can to get the most out of Klingberg and putting him in a position to succeed rather than make him something he isn’t.
I have come up with three methods that Sheldon Keefe and the coaching staff should consider going forward so that the controversial defender can be less of a hindrance and more of a critical weapon on their back end.

#1: Limit him to third-pairing minutes

Klingberg is who he is at this point in his career: a great puck-moving defender who can help elevate a power play while also being a liability in his end regardless of the on-ice situation. There is certainly nothing wrong with a team having an offensive defenceman on their roster, but that comes at a cost in their own end, especially if that player has been on a downward trend in that department over the past few seasons.
At the time of writing, Klingberg sits fourth among skaters in ATOI with 20:52 because he was skating over 21 minutes in the first three games while paired alongside Jake McCabe. The working theory was that since McCabe is the more defensively responsible blueliner it would allow the Swedish defender to have more room to make a play offensively. In reality, the duo was a trainwreck in their own end as is reflected in their underlying metrics as a pair compared to the rest of the league at 5v5:
StatResultLeague Rank (Min. 40 minutes)
CF%46.1554th
FF%43.6656th
SF%40.8262nd
GF%16.6760th
xGF%37.2361st
SCF%36.5966th
HDCF%23.0870th
PDO0.87866th
There were a total of 70 defensive pairings that played a minimum of 40 minutes at the time of writing. Even though Klingberg and McCabe only played three games together, the fact that the duo ranked no higher than 54th in all of these categories shows just how much of a hindrance the two were to the Leafs defensively.
To Keefe’s credit, he has recognized that this was a problem and moved Klingberg down to the third pairing alongside Mark Giordano beginning in Thursday’s game against the Panthers. Since his demotion to the third pairing, his ice time has dropped down to between 17 and 18 minutes but, crucially, his advanced metrics alongside his new partner have fared significantly better across the board.
Giordano is certainly not the player he once was at his peak, but he still brings a lot to the table from a defensive standpoint at age 40 and that should help get Klingberg to feel better about his game. It certainly isn’t ideal to have a player making over $4 million on the third pair, but this is the best place for him to be if they want him to be effective at 5v5.

#2: Put him in as many offensive situations as possible

This is more of an extension of the first suggestion while taking it one step further. Not only should the Leafs be limiting Klingberg to bottom-pairing duties, but they should also ensure that he is placed in as many offensive situations as they can because that is the area of the ice where he is the most useful.
Up to this point, a whopping 72.7% of his shifts at 5v5 began in the offensive end. It’s not hard to see why that’s the case, because he is by far their best puck-moving defenceman and remains exceptional at holding the line, making great passes, and firing shots on the net for scoring chances or generating rebounds.
You may think that this is more than enough even with the small sample size taken into account, but this is around the range the Leafs should be aiming to maintain for as long as they can because too much defensive zone time will be a detriment to the team. Look no further than a season ago when a combined 48.7% of his shifts in the same scenario began in his own end. While the Ducks and Wild were two vastly different teams last year both in terms of skill level and team structure, both teams felt that he could be used more frequently in the defensive zone and the results were mixed as far as advanced metrics are concerned.
By no means am I suggesting that Klingberg cannot defend period because he is certainly capable at the NHL level from an offensive standpoint. However, his play in his own end has long been an area of weakness and that has only gotten worse over the past few seasons.
It is therefore imperative that the Leafs try their best to maintain Klingberg’s high usage of offensive zone starts for as much as they can because that is where he is the most reliable. So expect him to continue getting the bulk of the minutes on the power play, with an extra attacker, and any other attacking scenarios where his passing and puck-moving abilities will be put to good use.

#3: Utilize him as a forward in an 11-7 lineup

While this may seem like an insane idea at first glance, it is crazy enough that it just might work.
Think about it: Klingberg is not just an offensive defenceman, but he is also a modern-day “rover”. He is someone who, as mentioned earlier, has great puck-moving skills and can move up the ice fairly well to make a play. Why not take this idea to the extreme and move him up front?
This scenario will only be possible when the Leafs have enough room to fit in a seventh defenceman as Conor Timmins remains injured and Simon Benoit has yet to make his season debut with the big team. But given how frequently Keefe used this lineup formation last year after the trade deadline, this is something the Leafs would be comfortable running should they go down that route again. If anything, it actually makes a lot of sense to try this out sometime in the future because it could be just what helps get even more out of Klingberg.
Obviously, they would still rely on him to quarterback the top unit and be one of the extra attackers, but during 5v5 play they could place him on the fourth line where he will gain even more room to jump into the offensive play and not have to be as depended on when it shifts in the opposite direction. Not only that, but Klingberg was actually a forward growing up and only made the switch to defence when he was 15, so it is not entirely inconceivable that he can make it work by playing in his original position.
I am not saying that this move will suddenly make him the second coming of Brent Burns or Dustin Byfuglien, but Klingberg’s offensive skillset could help him make a successful transition to forward should the Leafs attempt it in an 11-7 lineup. And while this suggestion certainly seems odd at first, sometimes the strangest ideas might just be the best ones.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.
Salary information from CapFriendly.

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