Unsung hero Kevin Klein helping push Rangers toward playoffs

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NEW YORK -- Years from now, after Kevin Klein retires from hockey, you'll find him sitting on a porch whittling wood or with his head under the hood of an antique car.

Not that the 31-year-old veteran defenseman for the New York Rangers is contemplating retirement, but he has an exit plan and it involves family, cars, grease, wood and a bed and breakfast (more on that later). But in the meantime, he's focused on helping the Rangers reach the playoffs in hopes of a deep run to the Stanley Cup finals.

He has been one of the more underrated players in the league for the two-plus seasons he has been in New York, but his contributions have been significant for the Rangers.

"We know how good he is, but I don't know how much recognition he gets around the league," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "He can play pretty physical and he's a great skater. He likes to join the rush and has a really good shot, probably one of the best shots on the team, and you've seen him beat goalies pretty clean and there's only one or two guys per team that can do that -- and he's one of them."

Since being traded to the Rangers by the Nashville Predators on Jan. 22, 2014, Klein leads all Rangers blueliners with 18 even-strength goals, eight game-winning goals and an 11.6 shooting percentage. He also ranks second among NHL defenseman with at plus-41 since the start of the 2014-15 season. He is also tied for the team lead in average even-strength ice time (17:58).

"I've made big strides since I got traded to New York and I've gotten a lot of opportunities, which means they have a lot of confidence in me and play me in most situations," Klein said. "We've got a great D corps and a great team overall. Playing with high-caliber guys like I do definitely benefits my game and they encourage us to jump up when we can and make plays. Last year before I got injured, I was really feeling like my game had gotten to a better level than in the past and I've tried to continue that into this year. The main thing is to play well for the team so we can get that playoff spot and make a deep run."

Originally selected by the Predators in the second round (37th overall) in the 2003 draft, the native of Kitchener, Ontario, played three seasons for Nashville's AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. Klein's first pro season, in 2004-05, Admirals head coach Claude Noel saw the rookie's potential and had a closed-door meeting with him.

"Coming out of junior, you don't know what to expect. You play a certain game in junior and I was a little more offensive and a power-play guy. I got to the American league, he brought me into his office and we had a good conversation," Klein said. "He said, 'This is how I think you'll make it to the NHL, from my experience, and I would like you to commit to this type of game -- defense first -- and defend well and play hard on the puck and I think you'll have a long career.' It's nice when a coach comes in and tells you that.

"You don't know what to expect and I was young, I don't think I was even 20 yet, and I took [his advice] to heart. We had a lot of leaders on that group because it was a lockout year and we had some guys down from the NHL and you learn a lot. I learned a ton. Over three seasons, I played over 200 games in the American league, which was good for me. You don't want to play there. You want to make that jump. I had to pay my dues."

He learned how to be a pro in the AHL, especially the mental part of the game.

"All of those things have benefited me now," he said. "Looking back, you might not realize it then, but now you think about those things and how it prepped you for the future."

As one Western Conference scout said: "Klein is very solid. He's playing more of a two-way game at times, but he's a good, steady D-man with a heavy shot and good size."

Even before he coached Klein in New York, Rangers bench boss Alain Vigneault was impressed with Klein's game. The coach has witnessed firsthand how good the veteran D-man has become.

"I remember a solid, stay-at-home defenseman that was hard to play against," Vigneault said of watching Klein with the Predators. "He had bite. He made the other team know that he was on the ice and I liked it. What he's done since he's come here, he's gotten more involved offensively, more involved at the right times. Today, if you're going to get offense, you need your D involved. They've got to know when to come in and when the hole is there or the appropriate time for them to come in ... and Kevin has developed that in his game and it makes it very useful for us offensively."

Off the ice, Klein has a few interesting passions that help him forget about hockey. He admits, even as a kid, he didn't like to watch hockey. His father was a plumber by trade, so Klein would watch and learn. As a pro, Klein will keep up with other players' stats, but the game stays at the rink. He has tried to find a balance with some of his non-hockey interests, including woodworking and fixing old cars and motorcycles.

"It works for me," he said. "Some guys live and breathe [hockey] and some guys don't. I'm one of those guys that goes home and I love playing with my boys, spending family time and working on stuff. I don't watch much hockey."

His current project is finishing the interior of his 1964 Volkswagen Kombi. Last summer he built a coffee table and dismantled a few motorcycles. He's even toying with the idea of becoming a blacksmith.

"I love working with my hands. I love creating things. It's kind of my artistic outlet," Klein said. "I don't paint or draw but when I get my hands on some wood or metal, it's fun. I find peace in it. I enjoy it. I've got friends that love doing those kinds of things, whether it's cars or woodworking. It's just fun for me."

His other post-career goal is to open and live in an eco-friendly B&B in Canada with his wife.

"Eventually it's something we really want to do. We enjoy having people around," he said. "We enjoy people and meeting new people. Our careers are short, I enjoy hockey, but time's running out. I'm on the other side of 30 and you've got to start thinking for the future. When you're in your young 20s, you don't think about anything else."

Make no mistake, however, Klein is focused on the task at hand to help the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup finals.

"We've got everything in the room,'' Klein said. "We've got the leadership. We've got the skill. We've got the goaltending to make a long stretch and we've got guys on the team that have won Stanley Cups and we've got guys that are really, really hungry and it's a great mix. If we can tighten up a few things -- [the penalty kill] being one of them and just our consistency -- I think we can make a long run."