Predators bolster blueline corps with Del Zotto trade

New Predators blueliner Michael Del Zotto (23 years old), a restricted free agent at season's end, notched 10 points during the Rangers' extended run through the 2012 playoffs.

For the second time in a week, David Poile has pulled off a significant trade with the Predators.

On Wednesday, the Nashville general manager sent No. 3 defenseman Kevin Klein — an important part of Predators teams that advanced to the second round for the 2011 and ’12 playoffs — to the New York Rangers for 23-year-old defenseman Michael Del Zotto, a first-round pick in 2008.

On Jan. 15, Poile sent forward Matt Hendricks (four-year deal in the offseason) to Edmonton for goalie Devan Dubnyk.

Instantly, the deal allows for Nashville to have one of the NHL’s most promising corps of defensemen. That group already includes 19-year-old rookie Seth Jones (No. 4 overall pick 2013), improving Ryan Ellis, 23 (a former first-round pick), budding star Roman Josi, 23, and rookie Mattias Ekholm, also 23.

Both Ellis and Jones are right-handed shots and have been forced to play on their off side this season.

"Michael gives us another young, gifted left-handed shooting defenseman with significant offensive upside," said, Poile, in a statement, as his team entered the day eight points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. "We look forward to his presence on our already talented young blue line, further balancing our defensive corps."

Del Zotto’s best season came in 2011-12 when he scored 10 goals and added 31 assists, while posting a plus-20 in 77 games. He also was productive offensively last season, tallying 21 points in 46 games.

This season under new Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, Del Zotto fell out of favor and had two goals and nine assists and a minus-5 rating in 42 games. He played only 12:00 of ice time and went minus-1 on Tuesday — in a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders.

During the 2011-12 season, Del Zotto was part of a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals, falling to New Jersey. He had 10 points in 20 games that playoff season, but finished minus-4 (21:39 per game).

Del Zotto’s ice time has fallen precipitously this season to 17:44 per game (fifth among Rangers defensemen) from 23:10 last season. The year before that, he averaged 24:44 per game.

This trade benefits Nashville for the long-term, even if it sacrifices a bit of a veteran presence in the locker room. The swap might not be greeted so warmly among the Predators, as Klein was a popular player.

For the Predators’ win over the Stars on Monday, Klein engaged in a protracted fight that teammates applauded, while also bringing energy to the group.

After a recent game, this observer noticed someone had placed a statue of a Buddha on the floor in the dressing room near the team’s logo — which players and team officials forbid anyone from stepping on. Goalie Carter Hutton said the statue was a reference to Klein (a good-natured joke) because he always remains so calm.

Acquired in 2003 when the NHL Draft was held in Nashville, Klein was selected in the second round before the Predators took current captain Shea Weber. (The Predators also took Ryan Suter in the first round that year, a landmark draft that helped form the organization’s foundation for years.)

In the 2011-12 playoffs, Klein was one of the Predators’ best players against the Red Wings in a five-game, first-round series victory. His end-to-end rush for a goal has provided a signature highlight in the franchise’s history.

Additionally, the Mohawk (hairdo) he sported for that series also brought plenty of color.

At 29, Klein is considerably older than Del Zotto. Nashville had him locked up for three more years after this one at a reasonable $2.9 million cap hit. Del Zotto’s current cap hit is $2.55 million. After this season, he’ll be a restricted free agent.

Klein has played all 403 games of his career for Nashville, totaling 16 goals, 66 assists, a minus-27 rating and only 110 penalty minutes.

In 66 games during the 2011-12 campaign, Klein totaled only four penalty minutes; and he had only four in 47 games last season, as well, indicating he can skate well and defend without having to hook or hold to get the puck away from an opponent.

Most of all, when coach Barry Trotz talks about players playing "The Predator Way," Klein seemed to embody that ideal — a tough, consistent, two-way player whom the team could depend on nightly.

In Del Zotto, the Predators get a player with more potential. Perhaps Nashville thinks new assistant coach Phil Housley, one of the league’s all-time leaders in points by a defenseman, can help convert Del Zotto into an elite player.

One thing seems for certain this season: Poile is not afraid to alter the veteran makeup of this current team, as the Predators attempt a long-shot run at the playoffs.