Toronto Maple Leafs fans have reason to believe in a Klingberg comeback season

Photo credit:© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
9 months ago
In a first 48 hours of free agency that left Maple Leafs fans with an array of mixed emotions, the signing of defenseman John Klingberg to a one-year contract left fans especially torn.
Klingberg, 30, spent the first eight years of his career playing for the Dallas Stars where he served as their power play quarterback and primary driver of offense from the back end. When he couldn’t reach an agreement with the Stars following the 2021-22 season, he signed a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks in 2022-23. 
Like the Ducks as a whole, Klingberg struggled last season and only managed 24 points in 50 games with the team, a considerable drop-off from what he usually averages. He was eventually traded to the Minnesota Wild and seemed to find his game again, finishing the regular season with nine points in 17 games for the Wild and four points in four postseason games in their short-lived playoff run.
The $4.15 million that Klingberg signed for is a discount compared to the $7 million he made on his deal last season, and could prove to be a decent deal for the Maple Leafs depending on how he bounces back in 2023-24. And considering what he’s been able to bring to his teams historically, I think fans are going to forget about the dollar value of his contract assuming he finds his game again this season. 
First off, if your reasoning for not liking the contract is because “the Leafs need defensive defensemen” I’m going to assume you haven’t watched a game since 2018-19 before they acquired Jake Muzzin. No offence. I know the age-old tale around the Maple Leafs is that they’re all offence, no defence or goaltending, but in 2022-23, they were seventh out of 32 teams in goals-against per game (GA/GP) at 2.68, 12th in the league in penalty kill percentage (PK%) at 81.9%, and tenth in the league in team save percentage (SV%) at .909. Can their defence be improved? Absolutely. But it’s not a pressing need like it’s been in years past.
What WAS a pressing need last season, on the other hand, was offence from the back end. Morgan Rielly had a down year by his standards with 41 points in 65 games, and after him, the next-highest-scoring defenceman was Mark Giordano with 24 points in 78 games. Giordano might not even be a full time player in 2023-24, so Brad Treliving looking for an upgrade on the puck-moving side of things makes sense. 
The Maple Leafs had the second best power play in the league last season, but there were times when the power play could have used more of a blueline presence. While Rielly is an outstanding passer and has the mobility to quarterback a power play, he doesn’t have a great shot and oftentimes his point shots will deflect off of opposing defenders’ shin pads. Klingberg was the power play quarterback on the Stars for much of his time with the organization and has a shot that’s better suited for the Maple Leafs’ man advantage unit. 

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In terms of strict offense, Keefe has more depth to work with than he did last season, so one wonders if he’s still going to load up his top unit and keep them out there for the majority of power plays. If he does, I would think that Klingberg is the number one option for that. If they plan to split up the power play units a little more with names like Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and Matthew Knies able to chip in as well, then I think you can get away with splitting his duties with Rielly. 
The other reason fans are skeptical over Klingberg’s deal, and the reason that actually makes sense, is his lack of defensive ability. Without sugarcoating anything, Klingberg’s defensive game is in the realm of Tyson Barrie. I actually had somebody compare those two players to me, and here’s the difference. 
When Barrie was on the Maple Leafs, former head coach Mike Babcock had him utilized in a defensive role with Jake Muzzin for some reason, and his offensive game and defensive game struggled alike. After Babcock was fired, he started getting reps with Rielly, which didn’t work either considering how similar their games are. 
The point I’m getting at is that the Maple Leafs’ defense when Barrie was on the team was vastly different than what they have now. For example, he never had somebody like Jake McCabe to play with. If not McCabe, he might get some reps with T.J. Brodie. Either way, Klingberg is going to have a partner who can hold down the fort defensively and allow him to play his game more comfortably. So, no, it’s unlikely his tenure here ends the same way Barrie’s did. Is it possible? For sure, but it’s unlikely. 
Assuming he doesn’t drastically fall off in 2023-24, the Maple Leafs will probably get 40 points out of Klingberg at minimum, which, for one year at just north of $4 million, isn’t bad at all. Granted, he’s clipped as many as 67 points in the past, so if he ends up with top power play minutes, I could see him finishing with anywhere between 50 and 65 points with the help of Toronto’s star-studded offense. You’ll hear people point to the offensive production Erik Gustafsson brought last season for less than a million per year, but the reality is that right-handed defensemen are just valued that much more than lefties, and the Maple Leafs simply don’t have the same space on the left side. 

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Regardless, there’s reason to believe that his play this season will end up better reflecting his play over the course of his career as opposed to what we saw from him in 2022-23. He admitted himself that last season was tough for him, and in his media availability he mentioned that Treliving told him there was still work to do, so they might not even be finished adding on the defensive side of things. 
If they continue to upgrade the back end, Klingberg will be even more sheltered, and it will probably bode well for him. But even if they leave the corps exactly the way it is, there’s enough reason to believe he’ll earn his money this season.

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