Optimus Klein Comes to Broadway
New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein will always remember January 22, 2014. That was the day he was traded from the Nashville Predators to the Rangers in exchange for Michael Del Zotto. The trade marked the end of an era for both organizations.
The Rangers had drafted Del Zotto 20th overall in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. While his talent was undeniable, the organization soured on him due to his lack of progress as well as his habit of making poor decisions with the puck. The fans soured on him as well, and trade rumors began to fly.
The Predators drafted Klein in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and by the 2008 season he had become a staple on their blue line. Never a flashy player like Del Zotto, he earned his ice time by being solid and steady defensively. Through most of his tenure with the Predators, he ranked third among the team’s defensemen in minutes played per game (behind only Shea Weber and Roman Josi).
While the two players had completely different playing styles, they both were exactly what the other team needed. The Predators wanted a young puck moving defenseman, and the Rangers needed to cut down on their defensive miscues. Both teams filled a hole with the trade.
Even though at the time this deal seemed to favor Nashville, a year later there’s no real doubt that the Rangers made out much better for it. After the 2013-14 season ended, the Predators did not even make a qualifying offer on restricted free agent Del Zotto, and he was eventually signed to a one-year deal by the Philadelphia Flyers. The player that fans refer to fondly as “Optimus Klein”, on the other hand, has found a new home on Broadway.
A Career Year in the Making
The current season will be Kevin Klein’s first full year with the Rangers, and he is turning in the best year of his career. In addition to his solid defensive presence (+15, second on the team to Rick Nash), he now leads all Rangers defensemen in scoring (8 G, 9A, 17P). He has shown an uncanny ability to get shots through traffic from the point, and that is something the Rangers have been sorely missing these past few years.
Just how much has Kevin Klein meant to this team? Look no further than the December 8 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In that game, Klein took a high stick hard enough to lose part of his ear, but came back to score the game winning goal in overtime. The goal came, of course, on another slap shot from the point that found its way through traffic into the back of the net.
Kevin Klein was brought to the Rangers to provide defensive depth on the third pair. After the Blueshirts lost Anton Stralman to free agency in the off-season and Dan Boyle to a hand injury in the first game of this year, he was asked to play a larger role. And he has responded. So much so that even with Boyle back in the lineup, he is still finding some playing time on the second defense pair as Marc Staal’s partner.
While Boyle is still the de facto second pair defender, Klein has proven that he can step up and fill that slot as well. And when head coach Alain Vigneault needs a stronger defensive presence on the second pair, it’s Kevin Klein who gets the call.
Time to Branch Out?
Though Kevin Klein was brought to New York to provide solid defense, his newly found scoring touch could be just what the Rangers need on their power play. Yes, Dan Boyle is still the go-to PP quarterback, and that shouldn’t change. But the second PP unit is crying out for Klein’s unique talent for shooting through traffic.
The Rangers are no longer horrid on the PP like they were last year. Dan Boyle has turned the Rangers power play into something that is, if not exactly feared quite yet, then at least respected (ranked 12th overall, 19.3%). But Boyle can’t stay out there the whole time–and the one player who can potentially fill that role on the second PP unit right now is Kevin Klein.
Yes, it requires a certain amount of thinking outside the box to use a solid defensive defenseman on the PP. But Klein has earned at least a shot this season. In addition to his shooting, he has shown a great knowledge of when to take risks offensively. While he will never have the pure talent of a Michael Del Zotto, his hockey sense and decision-making are much better.
Now that we’re fully into the second half of the season, Vigneault should give Kevin Klein a chance on the power play. The man has earned it.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).