Kevin Klein, the defenseman acquired from the Nashville Predators last season in exchange for Michael Del Zotto, is the new flavor of the month as far as the Rangers are concerned. With so many injuries and underwhelming performances this far into the season, one of the few pleasant surprises has been Klein's offensive production. Klein, with his six goals, is tied with Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, and T.J. Brodie for seventh among NHL defensemen. Even more amazing is that Klein is tied with Dennis Wideman for second in even-strength goals; Klein does not play the power play. It's literally unbelievable that Klein has contributed this kind of offense when his prior career-high in goals over a full season was four. And it's been a bailout for the rest of the Rangers' defense, which has combined for only three goals the entire season. The ear situation complementing the offensive outbreak has resulted in Klein's emergence as some sort of folk hero.
Again, Klein has six goals through 25 games this season after only achieving as many as four goals twice in his career. Defensemen are strange and sometimes emerge in their late-20s. Is that the case with Klein? Or is something else going on to explain his production? Let's take a look.
Hockey Involves a Good Amount of Random Chance
Ever watch the NHL Skills Competition? More specifically, ever watch the shooting accuracy part of the competition? A handful of the best shooters the NHL has to offer set up perfectly in the middle of the offensive zone right between the circles. They get to stand still, take a reasonable amount of time to accept a perfectly placed pass, and shoot towards targets on an empty net. The vast majority of these players need six or seven tries to hit all four targets. Again, this is in ideal conditions with the best shooters in the NHL.
Now imagine having to receive a pass in-stride from a less-ideal angle and with a goaltender and four bodies in front of the net. Also, you have to take your shot very quickly or else the converging winger is going to block it. If accuracy is somewhere around 55-65 percent in the Skills Competition, then it's going to be significantly lower in actually game situation. A player certainly will get his share of wide-open looks over the course of a season, but the vast majority of the time - especially for a defenseman - that player is taking a quick look at what's in front of him and is shooting for a general area of the net.
And what happens next involves a whole lot of randomness. How are screens disrupting the goaltender's vision? Is the puck on edge and dipping? Does it hit an opposing player's knee? Was the goaltender able to push off his right leg strongly? You were aiming for the upper-left side of the net, but which area of that quadrant is the puck actually traveling towards? Is it going to ring off the post and in? Or is it close enough to the goalie that he'll be able to get the last few inches of his blocker on it?
Obviously better shooters are going to be better at placing their shots, noting particularly vulnerable spots for a goaltender in that instant, shooting it harder, and so on. There is just no denying that each individual shot has some degree of luck attached to it.
Kevin Klein: Lucky or Improved?
One of the biggest obstacles, at least in my opinion, that the stats community faces is its inability right now to account for player development. Klein has six goals by early December despite never scoring more than four in an entire season, but maybe he's just a better player now than he's ever been before. Maybe Klein spent the entire offseason building stronger wrists and improving his slapshot. Maybe he changed his stick weight or the curve of his blade this season. Maybe Barry Trotz was holding him back all those years in Nashville. Maybe Dan Boyle sat in the video room with Klein the entire training camp and worked with him on getting in better spots to shoot. I think, to an extent, you have to give Klein credit for his improved performance.
But let's look at the statistics. Klein had 17 goals on 441 shots in his career going into this season. That's a shooting percentage of 3.85%. Apply that percentage to the 28 shots Klein has taken this season, and a 3.85% goal rate would mean 1.08 goals out of that 28-shot sample size. Instead, he has six goals, and thus his shooting percentage for this season is 21.42%. That's a radical jump. Maybe that's not a fluke, though. Maybe Klein has made the right equipment adjustments and worked hard to improve his game that much, or maybe he's a late bloomer. Couldn't that be possible?
Let's look at some other defensemen. Brian Leetch, the Hall-of-Famer and two-time Norris Trophy winner, finished his career with a 6.8 shooting percentage; 6.9% when you limit it to his time with the Rangers. The highest he ever reached was 9.0%, when he scored 22 goals in 1992. Nik Lidstrom also finished his career with a 6.8% success rate, peaking at 11.1% in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. Scott Niedermayer was a 6.3% shooter, while peaking at 9.2% during the 2008 season. The best career shooting percentage of any NHL defenseman since 1990 (mininum of 100 games and 300 shots) is Sandis Ozolinsh, at 9.4%. No other defenseman is above 8.8%. Let's also note that these players had those numbers inflated by power play time.
In other words, Kevin Klein is currently functioning at double the success rate of the greatest offensive-defensemen of the last 20 years.
Regression is Inevitable
Maybe Klein has improved his offensive abilities, but even a jump to 6% would be pretty significant. His 21.4% is superhuman. We have two scenarios here. Either Kevin Klein somehow dramatically improved his offensive game at 29 years old and is on his way to becoming the greatest goal-scoring defensemen in NHL history by a comically large margin, or he's just been on an insane streak of fortune that is in no way sustainable going forward.
This is not to say that Kevin Klein is a terrible hockey player, nor is it to discredit the goals he has put on the board thus far. That's not the point here at all. His goals have been a huge benefit to the team, and two coming in overtime only makes it better. But expecting him to be even half as successful the rest of the way is almost certainly setting one's self up for disappointment.