DENVER -- Before this season, it could be argued that John Klingberg was one of the top two or three players on the Stars.
Since joining the team in 2014, Klingberg was third in scoring (259 points in 367 games), was tops in average time on ice at 23:19, and was first in both plus-minus at plus-45, and SAT (shot attempt differential at even strength) at plus-717.
While SAT can be a bit controversial, it can measure the positive impact of a player on a team, especially when put head-to-head with his teammates. Second behind Klingberg in the past five seasons is Tyler Seguin at plus-464. In 13 playoff games last season, Klingberg was plus-80 while Jamie Benn was his next-closest teammate at plus-22.
The problem with all of that data is that those numbers are going against Klingberg this season. He is a team-worst in plus-minus at minus-9, and he's 18th in SAT at minus-31. So as the 27-year-old defenseman prepares to return from a knee injury that kept him out for four games, there is a lot of focus on how he will play.
Video: Bowness gives Klingberg update as Stars prep for Avs
"There's been a lot of ups and downs," said Klingberg, who missed six games earlier with a lower-body injury. "It's been two weird injuries, and outside of the injuries it still has been going up and down with my game. You deal with it, and you move on."
Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said he expects Klingberg will do just that. Bowness had Klingberg on the top defensive pair in practice Monday with Esa Lindell, and the guess is he will step back into his normal role.
"If you go back to last year's playoffs, he was probably our best defenseman," Bowness said. "It just didn't kick off (this season) like we all wanted it to, but that happens. But just before he was hurt, he was playing really well, he was playing the best hockey of this season, so we need to pick it up right away. We've got three games before the break, and they're three important games."
The Stars on Tuesday face one of their most important games of the remaining schedule. They are one point ahead of Colorado for second place in the Central Division and if the playoffs started today, the two would meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Stars have already beaten the Avalanche three times this season, and this is the last regular season meeting of the year for the two teams.
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So emotions will be running high, and Klingberg will have to be able to step right in and contribute.
"He's a big-minute guy, he helps us offensively, he helps us move the puck out of our zone, helps us coming through the neutral zone, playing faster with his quick ups, and he's obviously a threat on the blueline to make more plays," Bowness said. "So he gives us more offensive upside, for sure, and when he's on his game and he's moving that puck out and he's joining the rush, he's a real threat."
That said, Klingberg doesn't want to try to do too much. For one, the knee injury was painful. He had a puck strike his knee cap at the Winter Classic, and the puck split the skin above the knee cap. He said he didn't realize the extent of the injury until he took his pads off after the game.
"I could barely walk. I was actually in a lot of pain," Klingberg said. "I don't know if it just hit me in the perfect spot; it was like a normal shot block, but then I took my pads off and there was blood everywhere."
Video: NSH@DAL: Janmark deflects Klingberg's shot for PPG
And in addition to that, Klingberg said experience has taught him that when he tries too hard, he often makes mistakes.
"I've learned from that in the past," Klingberg said. "Go in and try to find your game as soon as you can, yeah, sure. But don't be a hero. Just go in there and help the team win."
That has been at the center of Klingberg's game, and maybe his biggest strength. He helps calm the team down, possess the puck, and create a game where skill helps keep the puck away from the Stars' goal. If he can do that, then his return will be a pretty big one for this team.
"There are always things you need to work on," Klingberg said. "We're always talking that you need to keep your head in the right place. There are a lot of ups and downs in the season, and you just have to deal with it."
Stars (26-15-4) at Avalanche (25-15-5)
Tuesday, 8 p.m. CT
Where: Pepsi Center
TV: FOX Sports Southwest PLUS; ESPN+
Radio: The Ticket 1310-AM, 96.7-FM
Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Buffalo Sabres when they return home to American Airlines Center on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Get your tickets now!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.