Veteran Defenseman Has Seen His Minutes Diminish, But He Has The Right Attitude To Turn Things Around

By Sean Hartnett
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Kevin Klein has heard the chatter. The 32-year-old defenseman is fully aware that he’s not playing up to expectations and understands that his minutes must be earned.

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By busting his tail and keeping an even-keeled approach, he’s out to show Rangers fans that he can regain the reliability that made him a trusted top-four mainstay in head coach Alain Vigneault’s lineup.

“Right now, I don’t think my game is where it was last year,” Klein told WFAN.com recently. “I’m working every day to get that back and contribute where I can. I struggled at the start, then I started to get it back. Now, I’m playing a little bit less minutes. I’m trying to contribute where I can. I’m on the penalty kill right now, working with that. That’s always nice because I was kind of the fifth man there for awhile. You just try to stay positive.”

Last season, Klein’s steadiness earned him 20:23 of ice time per game. That has been trimmed to 17:35 this season and, as he mentioned, his minutes on the PK have been cut. Klein averaged 2:05 last season and now ranks fifth among Rangers defenseman at 1:25.

Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein

Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein, front, is checked by Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk during the third period at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 13, 2017. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The hallmarks of his game have always been based on rock-solid play in his own end, sheer effort and rugged physicality. Though his production has dipped from 0.38 to 0.27 points per game, Klein said he is primarily concerned with elevating his defense-first strengths.

“Early on in my career I didn’t really focus at all on the offense,” Klein said. “It was strictly defense, shot-blocking, penalty kill, that kind of stuff. When I came here, they gave me a little more opportunity to be up in the play and play some four-on-four and some overtime. It’s not going that way this year. You just draw back to what you can do and how you can benefit the team by playing physical and good on the PK. If I can contribute offensively every once and awhile, that’s a plus.”

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Klein said he understands that part of his role with the Rangers is being a veteran leader and setting the right example for youngsters. Lately, he’s been paired with promising 22-year-old Brady Skjei and the two have created a healthy dialogue.

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“Whether you’re playing 20 minutes or 14, you’re just trying to put your best foot forward,” Klein said. “We’ve got some young guys back there that are helping it along. I’m playing with Brady and trying to help his game and communicate with him. You just need to stay consistent, be a true professional and come every night prepared and ready to go.”

Klein is eager to pass on his years of wisdom to Skjei. Whether through being a sounding board, offering tips on the bench or assisting in film room study, Klein said he is ready to impart tips and suggestions to help advance Skjei’s development.

“We watch a lot of video,” Klein said. “Beuke (assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom) is keen on video breakdown. There’s always communication between myself and Brady. I’m always there to help him if he has any questions or we need to talk, thought process … I’ve been around it all. I used to be that young kid looking up to an older D-partner.”

The comparison often made is Skjei sharing similar attributes to a young Ryan McDonagh. Klein sees not only great potential in the Lakeville, Minnesota native, but also the right mental approach in how he handles and responds to mistakes.

“Brady is a smart kid. He’s a heck of a player, he’s got a talent,” Klein said. “He could be the next Mac. The thing is, he’s young. Sometimes it takes time to develop into exactly how you play the game. The game is fast and it’s a learning process. Not everyone can come into this league ready to be a top-two defenseman right away. He takes it in stride and he’s playing well. You make the odd mistake and that’s expected, but you learn from it. He’s a good kid, too.

“He’s got that skating ability that is very beneficial,” Klein continued. “It just looks effortless at times. He can carry the puck, he can make big plays. The more ice time he gets, the more he develops. He’ll be quite a force out there. He’s a big, physical, strong young kid, too, which helps in this league. When you have all the tools, it’s something special.”

Right now, Skjei and other youngsters can also benefit from studying closely how Klein is approaching a scaled-back role. They should note how he is not bellyaching or kicking up a fuss.

“Over the years, I’ve played all sorts of minutes,” Klein said. “The main thing is you want to win. I’m right there if I need to play increased minutes. If they decrease it, I’m not going to get sour about it. I’m just going to prepare.”

Klein is simply knuckling down and concentrating on what he can control. All he can do is prepare his best and try to force his way up the depth chart by stamping out the turnovers and positional gaffes that have crept into his game. He’s capable of performing far better than he has for most of this season and the Rangers need him to get back to his steady-defending best.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey