Defenseman Kevin Klein, who turned 20 last December, was one of the youngest players in the American Hockey League last season. In 65 games the rookie had 16 points and gained experience playing in all situations for coach Claude Noel.
Now attending Milwaukee Admirals Conditioning Camp in Nashville, Tennessee, the 2003 second round pick is helping show the way for the many other prospects who hope to turn pro this fall or make the jump from Europe. Klein is one of only three players who played with the Admirals last season, the others being defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Paul Brown. Sent to Rockford of the UHL briefly in early December, he hopes to help others avoid learning their lessons the hard way.
Hockey’s Future sat down with Klein after drills on Sunday.
HF: This is your third prospects camp, how has this one been different? I know it’s a smaller group.
KK: There is a smaller group. Now I’m kind of older and one of the guys who is looked up upon, and I’m kind of one of the leaders instead of coming in and being the rookie and not knowing what’s going on and what they expect of me. I’m kind of one showing everyone else the ropes and trying to be a leader out there.
HF: What specifically have you been able to impart on the other guys your knowledge about playing in the AHL?
KK: Mostly about the things that will be expected of them in the American League. I had to do a speech for them earlier in the week about how I struggled at the start of last year and I eventually changed my game and did what the coaches wanted of me. How I built trust with them and they helped me out along the way.
HF: Can you give an overview of your speech? How did you have to change your game?
KK: Well, I thought I could play the way I did in junior and bring it to the American League, but when I got there, it just wasn’t going to happen. Everybody is so much stronger and faster and everybody’s good, there’s no weak players. I came in and kind of was in over my head and they wanted me to play a more defensive-style game and it took me about a month or two to realize that and change my game. Once I did that, I really stepped it up.
HF: Who has been your roommate here at camp?
KK: It was [Pekka] Rinne, one of the Finnish goalies. He’s really a good guy, he speaks pretty good English. It’s nice to be with some of the European players. There’s only I think four North American guys here now compared to about 12 or 13 Europeans. Most of them can speak pretty good English, but some you really have to slow down and talk to them. It’s good to get guys from different experiences and different worlds almost.
HF: It seems like [Alexander] Radulov is one whose English needs to come the furthest, would you agree?
KK: I would, but last year he didn’t speak any English and this year you can hold a conversation with him. Sometimes he’s asking you what this means, or what that means. But for the most part you can have a conversation with him and it’s a huge leap from last year.
HF: Has anything funny happened at camp?
KK: Not that I can think of…well, other than Paul Brown (laughing). We were playing by the pool with some lacrosse sticks and he fell in with his clothes on. That was quite funny. That was Tuesday, the first day I think. He wrecked his cell phone so he’s got to get a new one.
HF: Any drills been tough, it seems like you guys are having a lot of fun out there.
KK: We’re short on players so you’re going every second shift. So when we’re doing drills it’s intense because you’re going non-stop. It’s quite the conditioning camp this year, there’s not too many spares out there.
HF: Most defensemen who are offensive in juniors, eventually someone has a conversation with them about them being more defensive when they move to pro. Did someone have that conversation with you in junior as well?
KK: Not in junior, but when I got here, that’s what I had trouble adjusting to. Claude [Noel] sat me down after about one or two games and tried to coach me into playing more of a defensive-style game. And then they moved me with Greg Zanon and we were playing against some of the top lines and getting on defensively. At first I had a hard time knowing when to jump up when I can and still play solid defense, but by the end of the year I was playing first/second line PK. That’s fine by me, whatever they want from me (laughing). I think I’ve realized that now.
HF: What would you say is your personal goal for next year?
KK: My goal personally is to just get better this summer and I want to show well at camp. Hopefully they’ll give me a chance to show what I can do in the NHL, that’s my goal. I’m just trying to work toward that right now.
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