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Led by Klingberg, potential is there for Stars' defense

by Dan Rosen / Dallas Stars

Maybe it was unfair on Wednesday to ask Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill to pick out the top defenseman on his depth chart right now, because the player who probably should be the Stars' top defenseman is only 22 years old and has played in all of 65 games in the NHL.

"I think we got about four of them right now," Nill said. "John Klingberg, if he continues … "

Nill trailed off at that point, talking about outgrowing depth charts and the need to identify No. 1 defensemen because there are so few players in the NHL that fit into the category of superstars Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Erik Karlsson.

"There's only six or seven of those guys in the game," Nill said.

The Stars might have the next one in Klingberg. It's still a question of might at this point because of Klingberg's inexperience, but if he becomes the all-situations defenseman coach Lindy Ruff can pin 25 minutes a game on it'll make what Nill has done with Dallas' defense look so brilliant.

Klingberg, who had 40 points last season and was on the NHL's All-Rookie team, is clearly the best of what appears to be a deep, talented pool of young defensemen in Dallas that are going to be buoyed in their development this season by veterans Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Jordie Benn and Johnny Oduya, who signed a two-year contract Wednesday.

Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are expected to join Klingberg as the Stars' 23-and-under defensemen this season and round out their top eight.

With the addition of Oduya, Nill feels the defense is built to be good this season with the potential to be better in seasons to come. Klingberg is obviously a key to that because if he's No. 1, it will ease the pressure on players such as Jokipakka, Nemeth and Oleksiak, and allow everyone else to fall into their proper places.

"We've got some good young pieces coming," Nill said. "Potential is just a word, but as history has shown you, if some of these guys get better and become better than what you ever dreamed of, we're going to wake up one of these days with a pretty solid core of defensemen."

Klingberg already got his first big NHL contract (seven years, $29.75 million, according to war-on-ice.com). Oleksiak, Jokipakka and Nemeth, all with way more to prove than Klingberg at this point, will all be making less than $1 million this season.

"We're trying to be patient," Nill said. "You can't rush young defensemen. That's why it's so important for the Johnny Oduyas, the Goligoskis, the Demers, the Jordie Benns, you have to have those guys in place. We think we've got a real good young core of defensemen coming up. We just have to be patient with it."

Nill also identified Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns and Mattias Backman as four more up-and-comers for the Stars. Don't be surprised if any of them leap into the top eight at some point this season.

Honka was the Stars' No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft (No. 14). He is coming off a strong rookie season in the American Hockey League with the Texas Stars (31 points in 68 games).

"He's only 19 years old and he's knocking on the door," Nill said.

Lindell was Dallas' third-round pick in the 2012 draft (No. 74). He has been playing professionally in Finland and for the Finnish national team at the 2015 IIHF World Championship. Nill was part of Canada's management team at that tournament.

"Twenty-one years old and was one of the top defensemen for the Finnish national team," Nill said of Lindell, who led Finland's defensemen with six points and 26 shots on goal in eight games during the tournament.

Johns came to the Stars as part of the trade last week with the Chicago Blackhawks that also brought Patrick Sharp to Dallas. He was one of the top defensemen in the AHL last season with the Rockford IceHogs.

"I wasn't doing the trade without getting him in it," Nill said of Johns.

The Stars acquired Backman on March 1 in the trade that sent Erik Cole to the Detroit Red Wings. Nill was the Red Wings assistant GM and top amateur scout when they selected Backman with the 145th pick in the 2011 draft.

"We think we've got a lot of different options, a lot of potential," Nill said. "We just got to be patient. You can't speed this process up. That's the path we're on."

The path will be smoother if Klingberg becomes the player Nill expects.

"We think we've got a chance of having the next [Erik] Karlsson," Nill said. "We think he's heading that direction, and if he continues to improve I think he will be that type of player. We're sitting good."

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