Kevin Klein – The Unsung Hero on Defense
This time a year ago the Rangers boasted 2 solid defensive pairs and a third that could cause excitement one night and agita the next. The first 2 pairings were solidified by Dan Girardi / Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal / Anton Stralman on the back end, the third pairing of John Moore / Michael Del Zotto was a big drop-off and left a lot to be desired.
While the other two pairings complimented each ones style, the pairing of Moore and Del Zotto was the grouping together of two players whose play was strikingly similar as well.
Both liked to join the rush, and they also had their shortcomings defensively. The difference between the two was that whatever mistakes Moore would make when joining the rush, he could make up for with his speed to get back. Unfortunately for Del Zotto, he didn’t have the requisite skating ability to compensate. His high level of turnovers and misreads would lead to his eventual departure.
So on January 22, 2014 the Rangers and the Nashville Predators struck a deal, with the fact the Rangers unloading Del Zotto and his potential for a rock solid defenseman in Kevin Klein.
It was far from a sexy type of trade that would light the fancy of Rangers fans. What it was, was a trade that brought stability to the backline and gave the Rangers something they had been lacking – a solid 3rd pairing on defense.
The Rangers desperately needed another right-handed shot on the back end and got that in Klein. At the time of the deal, each pairing boasted a lefty and righty. In addition, with his stay at home style, Klein could be counted on in his own zone on those occasions when Moore would get caught up ice on the rush. He also provided some much needed physicality to a Rangers defensive corp which was not known for that aspect of the game.
In 30 games after his arrival, Klein did not post spectacular numbers. He registered 1 goal and 5 assists with the Rangers after netting 1 goal and 2 assists in 47 games with Nashville prior to the trade.
During the playoffs, he put up similar numbers with 1 goal and 3 assists in 25 games. As the playoffs progressed though, you could see his level of play picking up as he joined the rush.
The veteran also provided a calm influence with whomever he played with. Last postseason, he had several partners as Moore had been suspended and injured for a few games. Klein teamed up with Rafael Diaz in those instances and on several occasions he also moved up to play with one of the big four for several shifts as well.
Having a solid third pairing was a difference maker in the playoffs when other teams had to rely more on a core of four d-men, the Rangers could utilize six and that kept them fresher longer.
The trade brought balance and stability to the Rangers and a cap friendly contract. In September 2012, Klein and the Predators had agreed to a 5 year deal worth $14.5 million. With the number of young players the Rangers have coming up over the next few years who will either be arbitration eligible or restricted free agents, this contract was perfect. Not to mention the impending UFA status of stalwart defenseman, Marc Staal.
What his contract also does is also buy time for a young player like Conor Allen to develop. Having a rock steady performer such as Klein gives the Rangers stability. Plus, they also know that should the need arise – such as injury, suspension or a trade – they can always move Klein up in the defensive pairings.
Having the veteran presence of Klein on the backend also aids in the development of John Moore. They play very well off each other and this allows Moore to instinctually know when to rush or not to join the rush as opposed to thinking about it. He knows that Klein has his back and that should allow him to take a few more chances in an Alain Vigneault system that encourages the defense to pitch in offensively.
THE NEW SEASON
There’s no reason to doubt that this coming season will be another solid one for Klein. In prior seasons with Nashville, he had been a shot blocking warrior much like Dan Girardi. Having had almost the equivalent of a full season (regular season and playoffs combined) under his belt with John Moore, improvement of their chemistry will continue.
The departure of Anton Stralman to Tampa will also bring on more defensive responsibilities for Klein as well as he will be asked to do more on the penalty kill. It is not a role that he is unfamiliar with as he did the exact same thing in Nashville. If he can provide another 10-12 point season along with steady defensive play and a return to his shot blocking ways of years past, then this season will be a great success for Klein. If steady, unheralded and at times unnoticed is your cup of tea, then Kevin Klein is your man.
For the record, if you don’t notice a stay at home defenseman during a game…that means he did his job.