Klein Exits After Surprising Stint on Broadway

It’s not often a pro athlete arrives with such low expectations and departs with almost universal respect.

The RangersKevin Klein is one.

The defenseman officially announced his retirement at age 32 on Friday after battling a series of injuries, most notably a bad back that helped limit him to 60 games last season.

Klein’s retirement removes $2.9 million worth of cap hit off the Rangers’ books, leaving them at around $8.4 million, with only Mika Zibanejad to re-sign.

[Carpiniello: Position-by-Position Look at Current Rangers]

Klein had been one of Glen Sather’s best, most underrated trades, coming from Nashville for defenseman Michael Del Zotto and projected to be a third-pair type. Instead, Klein’s game often earned him top-four minutes, as he also showed a ruggedness and, surprisingly, an offensive flair. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist once said Klein had the heaviest slap shot on the team.

Signed through next season at $2.9 million, he was also a bargain.

Mostly, though, he was a grinding, battling defenseman who would jump to the defense of teammates – he twice fought ex-Ranger Brandon Prust in such circumstances – who became a fan favorite.

“I would like to thank both the Nashville Predators and New York Rangers organizations for giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the NHL,” Klein said in a statement Friday. “Thank you to the fans of both cities for their appreciation. I couldn’t have been happier to play in front of you. I will miss all the friends I’ve made along the way, from the staff to the guys I’ve played with.

“I’d like to thank my parents for everything they have done for me and for their constant love and support. Most importantly, my wife Jodi and our boys, Joseph and Oliver, who have sacrificed the most over the years. I am looking forward to many great years with my extended family.

“Again, Thank You.”

Klein, a right-hander, wound up playing in 627 NHL regular-season games and 73 more in the playoffs, helping the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final after being acquired during the 2013-14 season.

[Fischler: Klein Was a Nightmare for Opposing Forwards]

During his tenure in New York, he led Rangers’ defensemen in even-strength goals (22) and game-winners (eight), and was second in goals, points, plus/minus and hits (414). In his three full seasons as a Ranger, he was tied for 10th among all NHL defensemen with a plus-45 rating. In 2014-15 Klein’s nine even-strength goals made him the second Rangers defenseman to hit that mark since 1986-87 (Brian Leetch being the other).

With the Rangers’ addition of Brendan Smith at the trade deadline (and his re-signing last month), and Kevin Shattenkirk – both of whom play the right side – the writing was on the wall for Klein, who appeared to have been slowed by the recurring back issues.

At this point, assuming Shattenkirk and Smith play on the first two pairs (with Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei), the third-pair is still unsettled with veteran and alternate captain Marc Staal, and a slew of others including Nick Holden, Anthony DeAngelo, Steven Kampfer and, among several, rookies Alexei Bereglazov and Neal Pionk.