For the third year in a row, the New York Rangers are down 3-1 in a playoff series and facing elimination. This time around, however, hope seems to be dwindling more than ever. Much has been made of the defense during the series, as the pairings have been shifted around in the absence of Dan Girardi. Even though Girardi was unequivocally the worst defenseman on the Rangers this season, the New York blue line has collapsed without him, allowing eight goals on 63 shots in games three and four.
Vigneault has relied on Ryan McDonagh to carry the unit after returning from injury, while Keith Yandle has anchored the bottom pairing. Those two are the bigger names that are brought up in discussions of the Rangers defense, but neither have proved to be the cornerstone needed to fix this blue line. If it won’t be either of them, perhaps they should turn to the defenseman that has received the least amount of publicity this season: Kevin Klein.
Much of the criticism surrounding this Rangers defensive group this season has been thrown at Girardi and Marc Staal, while much of the praise has gone to McDonagh and Yandle. Meanwhile, Klein has been quietly having himself a stellar campaign. In the regular season, he had 26 points in 69 games, which tied his career high. He also boasted a plus-16 rating. He is 31 years old, but putting out some of the best numbers of his career.
In addition, Klein has been one of the better possession defensemen on the team. He had the fourth-best Corsi for percentage of all qualified defensemen on the team at 48.96%. That’s more than McDonagh, Staal and Girardi–most of whom got more attention and minutes than Klein. He also had a better PDO than Yandle and Staal.
In a season where defensive pairing seemed to change with the temperature in Manhattan, Klein’s partner has fluctuated the most. According to Stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Klein played over 300 minutes with Yandle, Staal and McDonagh. This kind of fluctuation may have hampered his production, because in each of these pairings, he plays a different role.
With Yandle, Klein may have to limit his aggressiveness on the rush because Yandle is doing the same thing. With Staal and McDonagh, he may have to jump up more into the offensive end and let the bigger bodies be the stay-at-home defensemen.
Since coming over in a trade from Nashville, Klein has proved to be a formidable defenseman, but has never been thrust into the spotlight. He has always been overshadowed by star defensemen like McDonagh and Yandle. It might be time to change that with their backs against the wall in this series.
At this point in the series, what do the Rangers have to lose? Even with their top defenseman and captain back in the lineup in McDonagh, and with their worst possession defenseman nursing an injury, they still can’t seem to slow the Penguins down. Klein has been reliable all season, and hasn’t been able to show his full potential. Tilt the minutes towards him and let him show what he has to offer. If McDonagh, Yandle, or Staal won’t do it, then it should be Klein.
Throughout his career, Klein has been overshadowed by the defensemen in front of him. In Nashville, it was Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In New York, it’s McDonagh and Yandle. Now is the time to give Klein the chance to steal the spotlight. Play him for more than 25 minutes on Saturday, put him on the top unit, and see what happens.
Anything else is better than what they are doing now.