Production (K)lein

Few seem to remember that Nashville Predators shutdown defenseman,  Kevin Klein was considered one of the better two-way blueliners available when the Preds selected him in the second round of the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Earlier this week the six-year veteran did his best to jog the collective memory of the Detroit Red Wings, scoring the game-winning goal Sunday (above) and again on Tuesday night, as the Preds took two in Motown. Nashville carries a 3-1 Western Conference Quarterfinal series lead back home to Bridgestone Arena on Friday night. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mission (Nearly) Accomplished
The Nashville Predators are back home after completing a historic two-game playoffs sweep of the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena last Sunday and again on Tuesday night. That they were able to take two games on Motor City ice is made even more impressive by the fact that prior to this series, they’d never even taken one. In their pair of previous Stanley Cup Playoffs Quarterfinal matchups versus the Wings, in 2004 and 2008, Nashville was literally oh-fer-The-Joe.

The dramatic victories this week have placed the boys from Music City on the never-before-tread ground of a 3-1 playoff series lead. They can now close out their longtime division rivals in unprecedented fashion with a victory Friday night at Bridgestone Arena.

The team has obviously played well since dropping the second game of the series in Nashville and placing the subsequent media circus distraction involving Shea Weber’s hit on Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg behind them. Several players have stepped up to meet the challenge, however, I believe it’s more than fair to say that one player in particular hasn’t quite lived up to his name over that stretch.

He’s turning that name on its ever-lovin’ ear.

What’s in a Name?
I started out with the idea of subtitling this story, Nothin’ Could Be Kleiner – employing a very bad pun to celebrate the very good recent exploits of Preds’ veteran defenseman, Kevin Klein. However, I thought better of it – not because it might sound too corny (I mean, HELLO…think about who you’re dealing with here) – but rather, because it would literally be a cross-purposes sort of statement.

You see, Klein’s surname, in Yiddish/ancient German means, “little person,” so according to my scrambled way of thinking, “nothing could be Kleiner” might loosely be interpreted as, “nothing could be smaller” which would be just the opposite of this story’s intended message – which is how incredibly BIG he played in Detroit, logging perhaps the two finest back-to-back performances of his NHL career.

Klein scored the game-winning goals in both contests, and defensively, saved a sure game-tying attempt in the third period Sunday, blocking the wide-open attempt by talented Detroit rookie forward, Cory Emmerton.

‘Kleiner’ is a curious study in terms of his perception by the Predators’ fan base – or at least those who are vocal enough to talk about him openly on Twitter. The Mohawk coif he now displays – and has in turn inspired others among Nashville’s blueline corps to adopt – somewhat belies his quiet, unassuming, workman-like nature. He’s not someone who draws a lot of attention to himself.

However, to some Preds fans, Klein is the proverbial sturdy chair that we seem to always take for granted; never giving a thought to whether or not it will support our weight whenever we choose to sit; it just does its job.

It’s not a necessarily ‘pretty’ chair; and when guests come over, they don’t always rave about how great it is or how lucky we are to have it, but then again, neither do we.

Nonetheless, we appreciate our sturdy chair, that is, until it creaks or breaks down – then we rue the day we ever bought the stinkin’ thing. And that’s a pretty unfortunate stance as far as I’m concerned; pretty unfair as well.

Late Bloomer?
For those who have witnessed his entire NHL career, despite his recent heroics in Detroit, it’s somewhat hard to imagine Klein as some kind of offensive ‘late-bloomer.’  However, the increased output we’ve seen from the six-year veteran  – not only here in the playoffs, but in the past two regular seasons as well (e.g.: his 4g/17a/21pt totals in 2011-12 each tied or exceeded career highs), may indicate that an area of talent once promised but never quite delivered might still be in play.

When you consider the wealth of organizational depth that Nashville has on the blueline, it’s sometimes easy to forget that at the time he was selected in the now-legendary 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville, Klein was the guy – not Weber – who was projected to someday share ice time alongside first round pick (#7 overall), Ryan Suter as part of the team’s D-pair of the future.

At any rate, that’s what assumed they thought, as noted in the website’s 2003 Draft Class profile for Nashville:

“The Predators actually compare Klein to first-round pick Ryan Suter. Nashville sees the two pairing up as one of [their] top defensive pairs a few years down the road. Klein, just like Suter, has excellent mobility and offensive skills. … Klein is known as a complete defensive talent.” [bolded emphasis: mine]

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Klein was considered the real deal coming out of Toronto St. Michael’s in the Ontario Hockey League. He was nominated as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman of 2002-03, and was an OHL East All-Star that year.

Another profile described him as “great at both ends of the ice. Offensively he can lead the rush and pass to a forward or can take it all the way to the opponent’s net. He is very aware defensively and clears the net effectively at the OHL level. He doesn’t take undisciplined penalties.”

The HF review went on to say, “The 18-year old was considered a player with first-round potential, but somehow fell into Nashville’s lap at the 37th selection, overall.”

For you non-math majors, that’s 12 selections prior to Weber’s name being called at #49 of Round Two.

Oh. Wait. You mean you thought that everyone had projected Weber to one day morph into The Incredible Hulk on skates? Well, if that were the case, I think you could have bet the farm that Nashville, with its juicy trio of second round selections back in ’03, would have then grabbed Webs in the #35 slot which they also owned – two picks prior to their selection of Klein.

Um…hope you didn’t like that farm...

Nashville instead nabbed a big, speedy Russian power forward named Konstantin Glazachev (and we’ve all heard of HIM, right?) who, with the notable exception of three consecutive double-figure goal output seasons in the KHL, from 2008-09 through 2010-11, has yet to show any indication at all that he’s NHL-level material. In other words, ya can’t get ‘em all right.

But then again, who needs a future stud-superstar defenseman when you can absolutely steal a future career KHL journeyman forward instead? But I digress.

The reality regarding Weber’s perception going into the draft is that Nashville was the only team who really had him in their sites.  If you honestly believe that ANY of the 12 GMs who passed on him from selection #38 through #49 had HALF a clue about the kind of player he would become, I’d invite you to check back with me later – I have a wonderful real estate opportunity involving some ocean-front property in Oklahoma that I’d love to share with you.

Oh, and don’t get me wrong; back in 2003, the 17 year-old Weber was by no means considered a ‘project,’ per se; however, at 190 pounds, there were obvious concerns about his relatively slight body weight in comparison to his 6’3″ frame. On the other hand, at 18 years of age, Klein, while two inches shorter at 6’1″ and 187 pounds, gave way to Weber by only three ticks on the scale, while possessing all the polish of a top puck-moving defenseman.

Who would YOU have selected first?

Late Bloomer 2 (or should I say, Too?)
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long after he was drafted by Nashville that Weber apparently became exposed to gamma rays. He wouldn’t grow any taller, but he would rapidly begin filling out and packing on muscle. Thanks in part to a workout regimen mandated by the Preds, along with his own drive to get bigger and stronger, by 2005 Weber had increased his weight from 190 to 215 (on the way to his current weight of 234) pounds, and had already established himself as one of the top defensemen in both the WHL and Canadian Junior International play.

Meanwhile back in Nashville, the folks in the Preds’ front office were feeling as though they’d won the Lottery.

But if you need to tab anyone as responsible for Weber’s late-bloomer status (and in turn, a goodly part of the Preds’ kind fortune), it has to be good ol’ Ma Nature.

Shea’s August birthday certainly contributed to his status of being somewhat behind the 8-ball, physically among his hockey peers. Weber is about six months younger than most of those in his draft class, and that difference in age and associated physical development would follow him all the way through his entry into the NHL.

Even in his early years in the Western Hockey League, where he led the Kelowna Rockets to the 2004 Memorial Cup Championship, he was later in physical development than a lot of his colleagues. He was only 5’9″ the year he entered the WHL and wasn’t even drafted. But soon thereafter Weber began growing and improving quickly; a trend that would obviously be repeated when he turned pro.

Weber has himself stated that at the 2003 draft he was as surprised as anyone to learn that he’d been selected in the second round, which all seems so surreal, given the circumstances surrounding his career some nine years later.

“I was just sitting there for awhile and when I heard my name I was surprised because I thought it was going to be a longer wait than that,” Weber explained in a 2005 interview.

The good news for Preds fans is that Ma Nature’s procrastination (along with a crapload of foresight by Paul Fenton and his team) certainly worked to Nashville’s advantage with regard to the Predators’ future Captain.

New Kevin, or Just a One-Kleiner?
But for me, here’s the bottom line in this discussion: Everyone knows how good a hockey player Shea Weber is. Everyone knows that Ryan Suter was well-suited (no pun intended) as the #7 overall pick in the draft. But how much do we really know about Kevin Klein?

How much do we know about the way in which Klein perceives his own overall talent, beyond the shutdown defensive role he’s always played for the Predators? Could it perhaps be that the workman-like sense he’s always exhibited toward being a defensive specialist has limited the offensive potential that so many pointed to early in his career?

And could that all now be changing?

One thing I can say to anyone who doubts the puck-handling and shooting chops that are most definitely still a part of Klein’s skill-set: just watch the video of Sunday’s game; of Klein’s second period burst-through-the-defense, mini-breakaway, and the slick, sick shot he put past Detroit’s All-Star goaltender, Jimmy Howard, giving the Predators a 2-0 lead and essentially putting that game out of reach.

Klein then came back in Tuesday’s contest, and in the pivotal third period, as Marty Erat was being chased in the Wings’ zone – inexplicably, by three Detroit defenders – he trailed the play and again displayed a goal-scorer’s instinct, breaking in at just the right time to receive the puck in the slot, and deposit his second-straight game-winning goal.

In either scenario, Klein hardly looked like the often sad-sack defensive drone that unfortunately a number of Preds fans have made him out to be in their online comments. And to be fair, for as solid as he has been over the years, Klein also had some pretty poor luck at times.

However, if anyone thinks that the draft fortune the Preds enjoyed in their grand larceny of obtaining Weber somehow counter-balances the relative disappointment of Klein’s debatably unfulfilled potential, I respectfully disagree.

And I believe we may have witnessed a turning point.

I’m not suggesting that Kevin Klein has now discovered his inner Drew Doughty; I’m suggesting that hopefully, Kevin Klein has now rediscovered his inner Kevin Klein.


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2 Responses to “Production (K)lein”

  1. Cisar April 20, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Another good one, AJ.
    For those watching, Klein has had a lot of opportunities over the last two years, but just hasn’t had good enough luck to see his shots buried in the back of the net.


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