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Kevin Klein: Nashville's Best & Worst Defenseman

Over the last week a great debate has raged in the Game Recaps and elsewhere about the job that Kevin Klein is doing on the Nashville Predators' blueline. Is he a fundamentally sound defender who just happens to have had his bad moments at the worst possible time, or a square peg which Barry Trotz insists on bashing into a round hole as a Top 4 man?

Kevin Klein

#8 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators



Dec 13, 1984

2010 - Kevin Klein 26 2 7 9 7 13 0 0 0 38

Now coming up on his 26th birthday and in his 4th full NHL season, the "young & inexperienced" label really doesn't apply anymore. So is Kevin Klein a reliable presence, or have the Predators blown it by giving him a 3-year contract extension, potentially clogging the development pipeline for younger right-handed defensemen like Cody Franson and Jonathon Blum?

Follow after the jump as we look at both sides of this debate...

The Preds have a 3-game homestand coming up (Saturday vs. Florida, Monday vs. the New York Islanders, and Wednesday vs. San Jose), so make sure to use our coupon code for Nashville Predators tickets. Remember, hockey tickets can make a great holiday gift, so you can also look through the schedule, and get seats for any other home game!

The Case Against

So far this season, Klein has played a starring role in some of the ugliest gaffes the team has had. All too often, they've cost the team a game.

First, there was an overtime winner given up to Calgary's Rene Bourque, in which Klein falls asleep after deflecting the initial shot, and lets Bourque beat him to the front of the net for the game winner:

Then, during the 3rd period of a 1-1 game in St. Louis, Klein made an ill-advised pinch during 4-on-4 play that resulted in a go-ahead goal for the Blues:

And most recently, there was the egregious brain cramp in OT against Atlanta, in which a stickless Klein let Ben Eager pick up the puck from between his feet and set up Zach Bogosian for the score:

Predators fans remember the horror of the Dan Hamhuis/Kevin Klein pairing from last year, and scenes like these can build upon those traumas. As SinBinPred wrote the other day:

My belief is that if you are going to take a top four D-man role on this team, then mistakes like this should not happen. Many times this season we have seen Klein have giveaways in front of our G. At times even giving the puck up at the crease, Klein has been out of position during a lot of plays and does not always appear to be confident while handling the puck. I can agree that this is a team sport. And when we lose or win, it is a total team effort. But, if we have a "weak link" holding us down, what do we do?    

This is an assessment (one in which SinBinPred is not alone) that is built over the course of time based on each individual's observations, and they are thus prone to our very human foibles and prejudices.

One of the very best hockey-related articles I have EVER read was penned by Calgary blogger Kent Wilson, entitled "The Limits of Observation" (do yourself a favor, print it out and take some time with it). In this piece, Kent breaks down some of the tendencies that skew people's understanding of events and trends that they observe. I'll spare you the gory details, but one of the biggies here is confirmation bias, which is "defined as the tendency to seek to confirm original beliefs or theories." In other words, let's say one fan (Joe Kleinhater) came into this season with suspicions about KK's ability coming out last year, and then sees events like those above. They validate and amplify those existing feelings towards KK, while a few games without such events go almost unnoticed, and don't do anything to sway that opinion towards the positive.

So I'd say that this perceptual view of Kevin Klein as a failure suffers from a focus on a few sensational incidents, rather than appraising the whole body of his work.

The Case For

Some would take the first step to diffuse the Anti-Klein case by pointing out that every NHL defenseman has their moments on the wrong side of a highlight, as PredHead observed:

Every single NHL team has a defenseman (or two, or six) who serves as whipping-boy for the fans. I mean it; every single team. Check out the other SB Nation blogs if you don't believe me. It's as much a part of the NHL as goons and goalies. My point is that the face-palm moments are going to happen even with six Webers as you're defense core. I doubt we could replace him with anyone who do much better for $1.3 million.    

Others have noticed that Klein has a Plus/Minus rating of +7 right now, best among Nashville defenders. That, along with his team-leading 3:29 per game on the penalty kill (which has risen to 7th in the league after a slow start), serve as hallmarks to what is actually a very strong performance, especially in light of all the injuries the Predators have had to deal with along the way.

A Deeper Look

I would agree that the first approach is perhaps overwrought, but the second relies on that most horrid of conventional stats, Plus/Minus. By focusing solely on goal-related events, it's almost as narrowly-focused as the highlight-reel driven worries above. Let's dig inside a little deeper with some data from Behind the Net:

5-on-5 data for Kevin Klein
GP TOI/G GFOn/60 GAOn/60 Corsi On Corsi Off Sh% Sv% PDO
 2010-11 26 17.0 3.25 2.03 -9.1 +2.1 12.0 .939 1059
 2009-10 81 16.6 1.83 2.50 -3.7 +7.1 7.0 .908 978

To review the columns:

GP = Games Played, TOI/G = Average 5-on-5 time on ice in minutes

GFOn/60 and GAOn/60: Basically, the Preds' Goals For and Goals Against rates per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play while Kevin Klein is on the ice. Since 5-on-5 play represents the bulk of the action, these components will determine most of a given player's Plus/Minus. For example, 26 GP x 17 min/GP x (3.25 - 2.03) = +8.99.

Corsi On and Corsi Off: The balance of Totals Shots (which includes Shots On Goal, along with Missed and Blocked Shots) For and Against. "Corsi On" is how that balance looks when Klein is on the ice, "Corsi Off" is how the team does while he's on the bench. What we see here is a consistent, strongly negative trend in the balance of play when Klein is on the ice. This year, that difference (called "Relative Corsi") is worst among regular Nashville defensemen, whereas last year it was 2nd-worst. That's not good, not good at all, even if he's facing reasonably tough opposition.

Sh% = the Predators' shooting percentage in 5-on-5 when Klein is on the ice. The league average is around 8%, so his figure this year of 12.0 is a sign that the bounces are simply going his way so far (it's the 13th highest among 212 NHL defensemen with at least 10 games played). There's no way you can convince me that Klein is doing anything that suggests this abnormally high shooting percentage is sustainable.

Sv% = Nashville's save percentage while Klein is out there. .939 is fairly high, but not so nuts as that Shooting Percentage.

PDO = This is just Sh% + Sv%, and it represents the overall "puck luck". 1000 is the average, most players will range somewhere between 975 and 1025 by the end of the year. Values outside that range are indicative of good (high values) or bad (low) luck, with exceptions for groups of high-caliber players who get to play together and dominate, like last year's Washington Capitals.

So what does all this tell me? I think Kevin Klein is still very much a work in progress, and that's a bit of a concern at this point in his career. Yes, his penalty killing work appears pretty solid, but that overall trend in Shots For/Against is worrying, especially since it's just as bad as last year.

And his Plus/Minus? It's purely the product of that abnormally high shooting percentage the Preds have enjoyed during his 5-on-5 ice time this year. Take that 12% down to the average of 8%, and that knocks 7 goals of his Plus/Minus, putting him right back at an even 0.

In short, KK isn't a disaster out there, but I don't see him making progress, either. As long as he can hold down the fort and allow Cody Franson to prosper against weaker opposition on the 3rd pair, that's probably a decent scenario for the Predators this season. Down the road, however, they need to get better, consistent performance out of that 2nd unit.

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