Why the Maple Leafs and John Klingberg are in for an adventure

Anaheim Ducks defenceman John Klingberg skates with the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in New York. (Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo)

TORONTO – John Klingberg is a gamble and an adventure. He is a risk and a surprise.

And the excitement — good and ill — that surrounds new GM Brad Treliving’s first (but not final) alteration to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence corps should only increase when the hired gun hits the ice in blue this fall.

Late-career Klingberg is viewed as an offensive dynamo and a defensive hazard.

The former is why Treliving handed Klingberg $4.15 million and a 10-team no-trade list. The latter is why the executive committed to only one season.

The soaring highs and shaky lows of the soon-to-be 31-year-old’s roller-coaster shifts will only be exacerbated in a hockey town that salivates over a smoking power play and eviscerates the culprit of a poor pinch or D-zone giveaway.

How Klingberg performs under the intense gaze of Leafs Nation should be fascinating stuff.

Thrive, and the lanky Swede could finally earn the multi-year contract he has been hunting since his first flirt with unrestricted free agency in 2022.

Flop, and Klingberg’s missteps won’t fly under the radar the way they did last winter in rebuilding Anaheim.

“Personally, for me, I expected it to go probably a little bit smoother than it did. And for that, I think I learned a lot,” Klingberg said in Zoom call last week of his Ducks days.

“You gain experience from it. Obviously, I’m not gonna lie. It was a tough year last year, playing eight years in the same spot and then coming in on a one-year deal to a team, and both myself and the team was struggling.”

Heading toward his first taste of free agency last summer, Klingberg turned down a reported eight-year, $56-million extension with the Dallas Stars, the club who plucked gold out of 2010’s fifth round and with whom he’d racked up six 40-plus-point seasons, twice finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting (2016, 2018) and once reached the Stanley Cup Final (2020).

The right-shot fired his agent before inking a one-year, bet-on-himself deal with the Ducks for $7 million.

Anaheim’s idea was to pump up Klingberg’s stats, then flip him to a contender down the stretch for a haul of futures.

But the D-man’s California swoon yielded only defenceman Andrej Sustr, a 2025 fourth-round draft pick, plus the rights to forward Nikita Nesterenko in a deadline-day trade with the Minnesota Wild.

An underwhelming return for Ducks GM Pat Verbeek, to say the least.

Despite producing respectable offence for the Wild (nine points in 17 regular-season games, plus four in four playoff games), Minnesota GM Bill Guerin didn’t make Klingberg more than a rental.

“One of the scariest defencemen I’ve ever watched,” Minnesota-based reporter Michael Russo of The Athletic told The Jeff Marek Show of watching Klingberg up close.

“Man, does he take some unbelievable risks that put his teams in tough positions.”


So, why was Treliving — who prefers his defencemen safe and nasty — so keen to take a swing on Klingberg July 1 when he’s not the boxout, shot-block type?

“He’s an elite offensive player,” Treliving said.

Here is fellow Leaf Ryan Reaves’ scouting report on Klingberg, after playing with him on the Wild for two months:

“He was great. I thought he got up and down the ice very well. He’s a guy who can break out the puck by himself very well. He brings the puck up into the offensive zone. If there’s a turnover, he skates so well that he can get back and support the D-man.

“He’s very good on the power play. Holds the puck and drags it across the blue line very well. He can really power-play it up there. So, I think he’s gonna be good for the power play.”

How Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and his yet-to-be-hired assistant deploy the Eastern Conference’s most efficient power play now that Klingberg is an option will be a major training camp storyline.

Since defenceman Morgan Rielly entered the league, he has 13 power-play goals and 139 power-play points in 719 games.

Over that same span, Klingberg has 21 power-play goals and 158 power-play points in 619 games.

Rielly is an alternate captain, a heart-and-soul leader, and he holds security.

Will he be usurped on PP1 by Klingberg, the hired gun with the more dangerous and deceptive point shot? Do the Leafs opt for a more balanced two-unit approach to five-on-four?

Klingberg said he had candid conversations with the Leafs brass about his role before signing.

“Especially with Sheldon, I think we’re on the same page of how we both look at how my game is when it’s at its best. And, obviously, I think my game brings a lot of offence, especially probably on the power play as well,” Klingberg said.

“When I’m at my best, I think I play a pretty solid game defensively and then join the rush and being involved in the O-zone and try to get as much shots as I can on power play and five-on-five, and just try to be creative.”

For all the Maple Leafs’ offensive virtues, little of their offence has been driven from the back end. It’s an issue Keefe made note of on several occasions during 2022-23.

Timothy Liljegren topped all Toronto D-men in goals last season with six.

Even in shortened seasons or battling injury, Klingberg has never scored fewer than that.

He potted 10 in his off year with Anaheim and Minnesota, despite skating through hip and abdominal issues, plus the mental strain of his new environment and bungled contractual situation.

“Every time I’ve been struggling with my game, it’s always (from) trying to do too much. You try to be too much involved in the game with the puck, and you try to be so creative that mistakes happen out there. It’s more of a frustration thing,” Klingberg explained.

“You’re trying to get your game in order, and you’re trying to do too much. And all of a sudden, you put yourself in situations where you hurt the team — and that’s something that I’ve been dealing with my entire career. … I learned that lesson many times.”

To accentuate Klingberg’s benefits and minimize his deficiencies, Keefe will likely partner him with a purer defender such as Jake McCabe or T.J. Brodie. Maybe he gets a trial with Mark Giordano.

Of course, Rielly, too, is at his best with the versatile Brodie.

Losing Luke Schenn, Justin Holl and Erik Gustafsson to free agency while adding Klingberg alone feels incomplete, so it’s no surprise to hear Treliving describe his blueline as a “work in progress.”

Yes, Klingberg will be under pressure to regain his Dallas form, and the idea of peppering pucks up-ice to the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander is enticing.

But the onus also falls on Treliving and the Leafs to surround their gamble with a defensive safety valve and let him do his thing — not everything.

“I have to play as simple as possible,” Klingberg said, “and then just let the game come to me.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.