Top Shelf: Klingberg joins crowded Calder race

Philadelphia, PA ( - In stark contrast from last season when Nathan MacKinnon steamrolled the competition for the Calder Memorial Trophy, the race is wide open in 2014-15.

Nashville's Filip Forsberg is still leading the pack as the NHL's top rookie, but Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary and Florida's Aaron Ekblad have cut into his advantage in recent months.

It's time to throw another name into the hat as Dallas defenseman John Klingberg has been filling up the stat sheet and garnering accolades after making a quick adjustment to the NHL.

Of the main group of Calder contenders, Klingberg is the only guy who didn't begin the season with his NHL club. Both Forsberg and Gaudreau had NHL experience prior to 2014-15, while Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick at last summer's draft, made the Panthers' roster out of training camp.

Klingberg didn't make his NHL debut until over a month into the season, but his late start in 2014-15 isn't the only thing to differentiate him from the field.

Unlike Ekblad and Forsberg, who were first-round picks, the Stars blueliner was a draft day afterthought in 2010 when he was selected in the fifth round. That is only a round later than Gaudreau, but in between being selected in the fourth round by Calgary in 2011 and his NHL debut late last season, the Flames winger became a well-known commodity in the hockey world thanks to his spectacular collegiate career for Boston College.

While comparing Klingberg to the forward duo of Forsberg and Gaudreau is difficult due to the difference in positions, he and Ekblad are running fairly close in terms of production. In fact, Klingberg may have passed the Panthers star at this point, considering Ekblad has 30 points in 51 games compared to Klingberg's 28 points in only 39 contests.

So, Klingberg headed into his NHL career as a virtual unknown compared to Ekblad, Forsberg and "Johnny Hockey." Perhaps, the relative anonymity has helped give Klingberg the space to make mistakes when he debuted with Dallas on Nov. 11.

Klingberg began this season with the Texas Stars after dipping his toe in the American Hockey League pool at times over the previous two seasons. The Swede also spent time playing professionally in his native country before jumping over to the North American game.

Through his first 20 games of the season, Klingberg produced 10 points on three goals and seven assists. Not too bad for a first-year defenseman, but also not enough to put him in the headlines along with the more notable rookies.

But things began to click for the Gothenburg, Sweden, native toward the end of December and his days of flying under the radar wouldn't last much longer. Klingberg has amassed 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) over his last 19 contests and was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for January.

His true breakout game occurred in Winnipeg on Jan. 31 when Klingberg became the first rookie defenseman in franchise history to record four points in a game.

The two-goal, two-assist performance highlighted one of his best assets, a deadly accurate shot from the point. Klingberg, who leads all rookie blueliners with 10 goals, scored on both of his shot attempts that night to put opposing NHL goaltenders on notice.

Although some of his Dallas teammates have talked about Klingberg's quiet confidence, his steady rise into the upper echelon of 2014-15 rookie has even taken the young Swede by surprise.

"I didn't think it was going to be this good," Klingberg recently told of the stellar start to his NHL career.

In addition to crediting skating partner, Alex Goligoski, for some of his early success, Klingberg also has praised head coach Lindy Ruff for being tough on him in all the right ways.

"He's pushing me every day," Klingberg said of Ruff. "He wants me to play good defense first and I think he's right because if I play good defense, the offense is going to be there. He has to trust me when I'm out there as a young guy. He's been a good influence."

It doesn't matter that Klingberg has come so far already, Ruff is still always expecting more from him. Luckily, the defenseman is mature enough to recognize that tactic as a positive.