The Curious Case of Kevin Klein

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Klein’s value, role and standing in the eyes of Rangers fans has fluctuated greatly since his acquisition from Nashville in January of 2014. I’d like to take a few moments to guide readers through Klein’s tumultuous journey as a member of the New York Rangers.

Acquired straight-up for fellow defenseman Michael Del Zotto, Klein’s first run came as the 6th defenseman of the Rangers’ 2014 Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. He played primarily with John Moore or Raphael Diaz on the 3rd pair, getting almost exclusively even-strength minutes only.

Klein's Defensive Partners Jan-Apr 2014 (w/ NYR)

In 2014-15, Klein’s first full season on Broadway, he set career marks in offensive production. His 9 goals & 26 points were season-highs (despite missing 17 games at the end of the season with a broken arm after blocking an Alex Ovechkin shot). Additionally, with the injury problems of Dan Boyle & Ryan McDonagh earlier in the season, Klein played considerably more minutes than his previous season. He played a lot on the 2nd pairing with Marc Staal, and even played mostly with Keith Yandle upon his acquisition from Arizona (for John Moore) before breaking his arm.

Klein's Defensive Partners 2014-15

During last summer, salary cap considerations sparked rumor of Klein’s possible departure from the organization, despite his monster year. In fact, I wrote that one of Klein or Carl Hagelin would probably be traded as to keep the team cap-compliant for the 2015-16 season. Of course, shortly after, Hagelin was traded to Anaheim for Emerson Etem & draft picks.

However, even as the 2015-16 season came closer to fruition, talk of Klein being trade fodder continued to ember. Why? Let’s look at the contracts:

NYR's Defensemen Contracts (via GeneralFanager.com)

Of the Top-6 defensemen, only Klen and Ryan McDonagh can be traded without worry of No-Trade nor No-Movement clauses, requiring the player to consent to a trade. And with McDonagh highly unlikely to be moved, being team captain, a tremendous defenseman with his best years ahead of him (he’s only 26!)… Klein became the de-facto defenseman to be moved, should a deal materialize.

Of course, one never did.

A weak pre-season game in September (paired with Staal) only exacerbated the idea of trading Klein. And yet, as we enter November, Klein has reaffirmed his positioning as one of the top-contributing defensemen for the club.

Klein's Defensive Partner for 2015-16

Consider the following:

Prior to this season, Klein had played 135 games as a NY Ranger. In only 3 of those 135 games did Klein log more minutes than any other Rangers blueliner. However, he’s accomplished this 3 times in only 11 games this season alone. Klein’s special team icetime has received a healthy dose this season, as he’s averaging 2:13/game in penalty killing time & 0:22/game in power play time. Compare that to Klein’s special teams icetime in his previous seasons:

Option 1:

The clock is ticking for Diaz to rejoin the Rangers, else he may depart to play in Europe, as he stated last month. Diaz has a cap hit that is $2.2 million less than that of Klein’s. So trading Klein and recalling Diaz is an option, if the Rangers are looking to free up more cap space for a future trade this season. Hoever, it seems unlikely that Diaz (or Dylan McIlrath, for that matter) can replace Klein’s immediate production & icetime.

Option 2:

Keep Klein as is, and if more cap space is needed, the Rangers move a forward in some other deal. Let Diaz defect to Europe if he chooses to, and maintain McIlrath & Brady Skjei as the 7th & 8th blueliners on the NYR depth chart.

Option 3:

Trade Klein for a similar defenseman (one who could staple a 3rd pair securely for a lesser cap hit than Klein’s $2.9 million) after an ultimate compilation of trade(s). While Klein’s trade value is perhaps the highest its ever been in his career, deals like this are still often easier imagined than executed.

My take:

I’ve consistently held this mindset regarding Klein… While he is the easiest of the top-6 defensemen to trade, I’ve maintained keeping him. Here’s why:

While Klein is (perhaps) an ideal 3rd pair rearguard, his cap hit is a bit steep for that role. However, unlike Diaz or McIlrath, Klein has demonstrated value in being able to play the 2nd pair in case of injury in the top-4. So with that context, $2.9 million seems like a reasonable price for Klein’s expected production.

Let’s look at Klein under PSAM, a wonderful salary-comparative tool developed by Josh Khalfin to sample a player’s cap hit versus others’ in terms of value, performance & bargain-rate. Klein’s data is in pink, accounting for 4.06% of the salary cap. Dark grey is data for those ranging from 3 to 3.99%, and light grey is the 4 to 4.99% range.

via Josh Khalfin's PSAM

Conclusion:

Many Rangers fans were shrugging their shoulders when Klein was acquired, unsure of whether or not to be happy about the deal. He was solid for the 2014 Cup run, quietly proficient on the 3rd pair. Last season his elevated play in the face of other defensive injuries quickly made him a fan favorite, only to be put on the proverbial trade block over the summer for contractual reasons.

Yet he remains, finding himself playing tough minutes with McDonagh, contributing offensively and exceeding his already-economical bargain. He’s met expectations, and then some, and I wouldn’t speculate the Rangers are desperate to revamp the defense corps on his account.

Steve Zipay is reporting Klein is now being tried on the 2nd Power Play Unit in practice. Klein’s success in New York may have yet to peak, but even if he has hit his Broadway ceiling, it’s been unimpeachably well-deserved.

P.S.:

I would be remiss to leave out one particular anecdote about Klein during his tenure on Broadway in this article; on December 8th, 2014 Klein lost part of his ear during a game, had it partially re-attached, and returned to score the game-winning goal. Is it any wonder why fans have, for better or worse, come to love this guy?