On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Rangers traded oft-maligned defenseman Michael Del Zotto to Nashville for defenseman Kevin Klein.
Kevin Who? The Rangers traded a former first-round pick for…Kevin Klein? That’s all they could get?
A fair reaction, to a degree.
Del Zotto is an undeniably talented player, a swift-skating, move-the-puck defenseman who not long ago was drawing comparisons to Brian Leetch. (And thus he was irrevocably doomed.) He’s young, with some growing still to do, and plays the game with a flashy confidence that you either have from the start or don’t have at all. In today’s league, he’s a valuable commodity.
Klein, on the other hand, comes from a more generic mold. He’s a big, stay-at-home defenseman with heavy fists and not-so-soft hands. At 29 years old, he has maxed out his potential as a depth defenseman, and can be counted on for more penalty minutes than points. His numbers through 47 games this season? 1 G, 2 A, 21 PIM.
With winter descending upon the east coast, let’s turn to the beach. You’re walking the water searching for sea glass and you come across a rare blue shard – a token from an old bottle of Labatt’s. “Ohh, a Del Zotto,” you say with reverence, and drop the piece of glass into your bucket. Moments later, you find a well-weathered brown wedge, soft along the edges from years of wear. “Meh, a Kevin Klein,” you shrug, and toss the glass back into the ocean.
Indeed, there are a lot of Kevin Kleins out there. (Before Bobby Orr, Kevin Klein is actually all there was.) But the Rangers don’t have one. And though Del Zotto is a rarer breed, his stock has fallen tremendously since his breakout 2011-12 season. His value was high once – and still would be in some Alternate Hockey Universe where his skill set was all there was to go by. But the NHL has watched him struggle over the past two years, and scouts don’t look on him the way they used to.
Nor does Ranger coaching. After gaining the favor of John Tortorella in 2011-12, and then basically weathering the storm last season, Del Zotto went plummeting down the depth chart this fall under Alain Vigneault. Reshuffling is inevitable when a new regime takes over, and it didn’t take long for Del Zotto to end up on the bottom of the deck. By November he was in the press box, at which point Vigneault made it pretty clear what he thought of the young defenseman.
“I have been told he is a much better player,” Vigneault said after making Del Zotto a healthy scratch for three straight games. “I have not seen that on a consistent enough basis.” In other words, say what you want, but I don’t think he’s that good.
Del Zotto was scratched seven more times up to Tuesday’s loss to the Islanders, and you get the feeling that if the Rangers hadn’t traded him this season he would have quickly signed elsewhere in the summer. So Glen Sather was smart to get something in return when he still had the chance.
And instead of shipping off Del Zotto for a third-round pick or some unsure prospect, Sather filled a glaring team whole. All season long, the Rangers have struggled to find a right-handed defenseman to play on the bottom pairing. Stand-ins Connor Allen and Justin Falk were left-handed shots; prospect Dylan McIlrath, a righty, wasn’t yet fast enough for the NHL game. And neither Del Zotto nor John Moore could reliably play on the right side.
That’s where Klein has made his living. So he’ll slide comfortably into that third d-paring with John Moore, who should benefit from playing with a more conservative partner. Meanwhile the strong return of Marc Staal and improved play of Dan Girardi help make the Rangers defensive corps one of the best in the league. (No need to mention how good McDonagh and Stralman have been.)
But Klein is more to the Rangers than a right-handed shot. Perhaps just as important, he’s an aggressor, eager to stick up for his teammates by dropping the gloves. The Rangers have been criticized this year for being soft – easy to push around – and though the acquisition of Dan Carcillo has helped, Klein adds another element of fear to the lineup. In this sense, he is a long-overdue replacement for Michael Sauer.
Unlike Del Zotto, who will become a restricted free agent in June, Klein isn’t just a three-month rental. He’s signed through the 2017-18 season with an annual cap hit of $2.9 million, meaning the Rangers, for a relative bargain, just picked up a necessary piece to their puzzle for the next four years. Del Zotto, meanwhile, may be in Toronto by September.
Look at it this way: all the things that Rangers fans hated about Del Zotto – his tendency to turn the puck over, his sudden defensive lapses, his general pretty-boy aura – run counter to every fiber in Klein’s body. He’s smart with the puck, alert in his own end, and doesn’t smile in photos. The Garden Faithful should take to him just fine.
In a vacuum, this trade might look like charity from the Rangers’ end. Frustrated with Del Zotto’s lack of consistency, management threw their hands up and gave him away for nothing. But that would overlook everything operating around the edges: Del Zotto’s fall from favor and diminishing returns, Klein’s right-handed shot and free-swinging fists.
Taken all together, this swap makes sense for the Rangers. Kevin Klein is all they could get, and for this team, he represents a whole lot.