The New England Patriots have developed an unpopular, but highly effective strategy under head coach Bill Belichick: You'd rather sell a year too early rather than a year too late. It's unpopular because it usually means the exit of fan favorites; whether this is by refusing to re-sign a player because they're future value is compromised or trading a player who will probably never have higher value.
The latter is exactly where we are with Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein. After a career-best year with the Rangers -- which saw him tally nine goals and 26 points in 65 games -- Klein has probably reached a level he'll never be able to replicate. That's not his fault, by the way, it's simply something that happens in sports.
Players go through funks. Usually we remember these funks because they're bad funks. Good funks happen as well, though, and those are the types of funks that can be dangerous.
Here's why: Klein scored nine goals last year and put up points at a 0.40 PPG rate -- a rate that would be worth about 33 points in a full 82-game season. Those aren't exactly offensive numbers to scoff at out of a third-pairing defensman who brings grit, toughness and a willingness to do the dirty work in front of the net. To that point, Klein is a very serviceable third-pairing defenseman who isn't flashy and gets the job done.
If Klein were a 30-35 point defenseman he'd probably be worth his contract. Actually, Klein could be worth his contract as he is -- especially if a team isn't pushed against the top of the cap ceiling. The Rangers are pushed against the cap ceiling, though, so they really can't afford to take a risk. And it's quite clear Klein will never have this much value again.
In his 433 career NHL games (this does not include last year) Klein never scored more than four goals and had a career average of a 0.20 PPG rate. That's half of what Klein produced this year and is worth about 16 points in a full 82-game season.
On December 23rd this year I wrote an article about how through 30 games Klein's offensive production might as well have been magic. He had seven goals through 30 games -- which also means he only scored two goals his final 35 games -- and was at the peak of his magical power. He was sporting a ridiculously unsustainable 11.4% shooting percentage above his career high. When he crashed back down to earth he did it hard, and was sadly one of the Rangers worst defenseman in the playoffs.
Klein will be 31 in December; he is not a young player who is finding his game and growing at the NHL level. Klein is what he is: a serviceable fifth or sixth defenseman worth about 16 points over a full season. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing wrong with him, but his $2.9-million salary is too much for the Rangers to keep paying him. Especially with cheaper -- and arguably better -- options in Hartford (mainly Brady Skjei) or internally with Matt Hunwick.
Klein will never be more valuable than he is today, which is exactly why he needs to be moved. It appears there was interest in packaging him up with Cam Talbot, and while that didn't happen there is still a market for him out there. Glen Sather needs to find that market and exploit it.
Maybe he jumps ahead of things and makes a move for a 2016 pick. Maybe he guns for prospects. But he has to move Klein, and the defenseman's value is only the first part of that.
The second part is his contract. If the Rangers are determined to keep Dan Girardi and his behemoth $5.5-million cap hit on the books, they need to look at other ways to save money. They did this by trading Carl Hagelin, making the decision to walk away from Martin St. Louis and moving Talbot and then trading for Antti Raanta. That's not enough, though. If you remove Klein and replace him with Skjei you save another $2-million (I detailed this in here) which gives you move flexibility.
With contract negotiations upcoming with J.T. Miller, Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast and the biggest nugget in Derek Stepan, you need all the room you can get. Especially if Sather wants to play in free agency (although with the crop available nothing is worthwhile outside of a few really solid depth signings) or look to improve the team via trade.
Like I said above, if the Rangers don't want to fix their biggest cap problems then they need to get creative. And if that comes at the expense of a fan favorite defenseman who will never have a higher value than he does now then so be it.
In a cap world very good teams evolve to stay competitive around the cap. Sometimes that comes packaged with unpopular decisions.
Better than the alternative, though.