Nashville Predators general manager David Poile thinks that the way the NHL is going, teams are going to need better-skating defensemen with more offensive upside.
It's how, as general manager of the U.S. Olympic Team, he sought to build the roster for the 2014 Sochi Games. And it's why he traded Kevin Klein, a defensive-minded defenseman, to the New York Rangers on Wednesday for Michael Del Zotto, a younger defenseman who has more offensive upside.
"It's a good comparison," Poile said. "Obviously, the less time you spend in your end, it's a good situation. So to have those defensemen who can either skate the puck out or who can make that first pass to forwards and transition from defense to offense, you're better than most if you're one of the best at that. We think that we have those types of players and that Del Zotto is one of those types of players."
Klein was not an easy player for the Predators to trade. The organization drafted him in the second round in the 2003 NHL Draft, which was held in Nashville. It was the same draft that brought Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to the Predators; Klein actually was drafted ahead of Weber, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist). With 403 NHL games played, all with the Predators, Klein ranks 10th in franchise history.
Speaking to his defensive play, Klein recorded four penalty minutes in 66 games in 2011-12 and nine last season in 47 games - the fewest minor penalties in the League among defensemen to have appeared in the previous two seasons with at least 100 games. Klein essentially played a No. 3 role for Nashville. He was a veteran of second-round appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for Nashville in both 2011 and 2012. In 2012, he played a key role in ousting the Detroit Red Wings in five games. Klein scored goals in Games 3 and 4, both of which were Nashville victories, and had the winning goal in Game 4.
Trading such a veteran presence as Nashville tries to make up an eight-point deficit and get back in the playoff race was not easy. Poile was asked if he were concerned how the move would play in the dressing room.
"I'm always concerned when you trade away good people, and Kevin was good for our organization both as a player and a person," Poile said. "He and his wife did a lot [for] the community but the overriding factor is, of course, where we are in the standings. The fact that we didn't make the playoffs last year and we are behind the eight ball this year so we need to improve in some different areas and it just felt to those of us in making this decision that this would be a better fit for us, not only for today but for sure in the future. …
"I think Kevin is a very, very good defenseman, very solid defensively defenseman but I think Del Zotto is a much different type of a player and he has that offensive upside, he's already shown that. He's had a season where he's had 42 points."
Poile seemed to say that the fate was sealed for Klein's future with the Predators when the team took right-handed-shooting Seth Jones with the fourth pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and with the emergence of righty-shooting Ryan Ellis, the 11th player taken in the 2009 draft. Both Jones and Ellis, who had teamed with Klein on the second pair lately, have had to play on their off side this season.
Del Zotto is a left-handed shot. Poile quoted coach Barry Trotz as saying that the Predators have all the right people on the bus but they do not have them in the right seats. The hope is that the trade has alleviated that problem.
While Poile said age was not an overriding factor, Klein is nearly six years older Del Zotto. Nashville's defense corps is very young now: Jones is 19, Ellis, Roman Josi, rookie Mattias Ekholm and Del Zotto all are 23. Del Zotto, who was a first-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, will be a restricted free agent after the season.
Del Zotto has had his own playoff success with the Rangers. During the 2011-12 season, he was part of a team that reached the Eastern Conference Final. He totaled 10 points in 20 playoff games that year while averaging 21:39 of ice time.
He also was productive offensively last season with 21 points in 46 games, but new coach Alain Vigneault began to cut his ice time this season; he was seeing more than five minutes per game less than he did in 2012-13.
The case for keeping Klein in Nashville wasn't helped when he missed two games recently and the Predators performed well without him. Ellis, in particular, has upped his game in the past few games and Trotz began giving him or Jones more of the minutes that Klein would have played. In a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 12, Ellis played 16:43 while Klein played 13:00; in a 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 14, Jones logged 19:00 and Klein played 16:34.
Weber also is a right-handed shot.
"Committing, if you will to Weber, Jones and Ellis on the right side, it was going to be more difficult for Kevin to continue in his present role," Poile said.
While the deal was made for the long term, Poile also hopes it helps Nashville in the short-term offensively. The Predators have struggled to score during the past two seasons and rank 24th in the NHL this season with 2.43 goals per game. Poile was asked if it were easier to make a deal for an offensive defenseman like Del Zotto than it was to acquire a forward.
"Absolutely," he said. "There's no question right now that offensively we need to get better and there's no question that a lot of our present offense comes from defense. And I think this is just one more weapon back there to show how we're trying to build this team going forward."