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What Happens When Kevin Klein Is Ready To Return?

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NHL: Colorado Avalanche at New York Rangers Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

At practice Monday the New York Rangers announced both Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein were medically cleared to return to the ice.

Consistent with Alain Vigneault’s usual strategy; players need to get a few practices in before they come back to action fully. So it’s no real surprise both Girardi and Klein will be sitting tonight’s divisional matchup against the Devils. Per practice, the lineup will be the same as the win over the Wild.

This does beg the question though: Is this the end of Klein?

The moment Vigneault feels Girardi is ready to suit up he will enter the lineup for Adam Clendening/Steven Kampfer (depending on who is playing at that time). As for Klein? Well, it doesn’t really look like he fits long term.

Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal are not coming out of the lineup. Maybe Vigneault would spell Staal and McDonagh a few games since the Rangers playoff situation is basically locked up (unless something crazy happens, hello Montreal) but long term where does he fit?

I’ve seen a lot of snark about how Skjei will probably come out of the lineup for a veteran presence, but there’s no way I can see that happening. Skjei is on pace for a 35-40-point season and has been a shining light on the defense. At just 22-years-old he’s got a future you should be very excited about, and he deserves more credit around the league than he’s getting.

That leaves Nick Holden, who does seem to have earned Vigneault’s trust, but has slowed considerably after a red-hot start to the year offensively. In truth, this seems to be the only real option for the coach: Either play Klein for Holden, or keep playing Holden and scratch Klein.

I’m fascinated to see how this plays out since it’s a battle between two trusted veterans.

On the ice, I’m not sure there’s an enormous difference between Klein and Holden. I’d probably prefer to see Holden, but it wouldn’t be worth getting upset over one way or another. And since Vigneault does use Holden (sparingly, but still uses him) on the power play, it helps his chances to remain in the lineup.

The defense, for the most part, is what it is at this point. Smith has made a big difference in shoring things up in the top-four, although what happens when Girardi returns will be interesting. Does Vigneault reunite Girardi and McDonagh (probably) and then slide Smith with Skjei? Or does he make Smith and McDonagh the top pairing and then slide Girardi with Staal, leaving Holden and Skjei as the bottom pair?

There aren’t a ton of great options there, but these are the pieces of which the Rangers have to put the puzzle together. No matter how you look at it, though, the acquisition of Smith has made the Rangers a better team. A heavy price (especially if you’re unsure about the team’s long-term chances this year) but if they re-sign him it’s a worthwhile investment.

Long story short: I’m not too sure there’s a real answer when it comes to Klein. I think we’ll see him a little to spell rest for some of the other defenseman, but come the playoffs I think Klein is in the press box barring an injury.

Thoughts?