With only three games remaining until the Olympic break, NHL teams will have completed roughly 70 percent of the season before taking a two-week break for the Sochi Winter Games.
At this point there’s a pretty good body of work to look at for the NHL regular season awards, and there is a very good crop of first-year players vying for the inside track on the Calder Trophy. Clearly the front-runner is the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s draft Nathan MacKinnon with 20 goals and 41 points for the upstart Colorado Avalanche, but Tampa’s Tyler Johnson, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Rangers forward Chris Kreider are certainly candidates.
Another talented young player clearly in the discussion is Bruins rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who leads all rookie blueliners with his 12 goals and 30 points while leading all NHL first-year players with 16 power play points, and breathing new life into a B’s power play that’s been stagnant for years. His performance has been a continuation of what Krug did in helping push the B’s offense during last year’s playoff run once injuries opened up a spot for him.
“When you can contribute, score goals and keep the puck out of your net it’s really a good feeling,” said Krug. “You’re a positive for your team. Coming into this season I didn’t really have doubts, but you wonder if you’re going to have that scoring touch.
“Once I scored that first goal it all came rushing back for me. That confidence and swagger came back, and everything shift I take I’m trying to be a positive player and help us win.”
While players like MacKinnon, Scheifele and Kreider are supposed to be in this field after being highly touted first-round picks, there is something special about undrafted free agent signings like Johnson and Krug panning out for their respective teams.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Krug admits that being undrafted and largely ignored by USA Hockey as a younger player was part of the circumstances that turned him into undersized battler with the impressive offensive skills. A searing point shot and above-average skating speed were always strengths of Krug, but he still had to prove plenty of people wrong along the way.
“As a young kid the dream was to be part of the US National Team Development Program, and to get invited to those select tournaments,” said Krug. “I never got any of that. I was always ‘too small.’ That was always the knock against me.
“I wish people could know how much other people go up to me, or to my dad, and say, ‘Sorry we were wrong about you as a player.’ It’s the driving force that keeps the motor going: ‘You’re too small, you’re too weak, you’re never going to make it and you’re just daddy’s kid on the team.’ I heard that stuff all the time.”
It was those character-building experiences along with growing up as one of four competitive brothers (Adam, Matt and Zak) in Michigan that made Krug exactly what he is now as a player that beat the odds for the Bruins.
“It was everything. Whether we were playing video games, or out in the driveway playing basketball or shooting pucks, or wrestling,” said Krug. “When we were at dinner they’d put the food down, and we were battling to see who’d get the biggest piece of chicken. It was really a mentality, and I was just lucky to have three brothers.
“We were raised blue collar by our parents, and that we should always be confident and be humble. That was a good thing. Hockey was everything to my family. I still call my dad after every single game.”
The big season couldn’t have come at a better time for the 22-year-old Krug, who will be a restricted free agent following this season with a chance to triple his salary up into the $2.5-3 million per season range. A Calder Trophy added to Krug’s numbers could really help build up the youngster’s cachet headed into contract negotiations, but don’t expect the young defenseman to his new deal with the Bruins an issue.
Krug had his chance to sign with whatever team he wanted as a 20-year-old defenseman prospect out of Michigan State University that was being chased by both the Bruins and the Blackhawks. It was ironic that a year later Boston and Chicago were tangling in the Stanley Cup Final, but it’s also instructive that the Bruins are the only organization Krug wants to be a part of.
A strong finishing kick with a Calder Trophy and another dynamic playoff body of work could mean plenty of extra large pieces of chicken for Torey and his brothers to fight over at the Krug family barbeques this summer.
KHUDOBIN CONTINUES HIS HOT STREAK
A stick salute to former Bruins backup netminder Anton Khudobin, who was the NHL’s First Star of the Month for January after winning 10 games for the Hurricanes last month while pushing them into a playoff spot. Khudobin appeared in all 14 January games for Carolina with a 10-4-0 with a 2.19 GAA and .927 save percentage. Khudobin also set a franchise record for wins to start a season and career with Hartford/Carolina (six), and was proven correct in signing with Carolina as his best opportunity to establish himself as a starting NHL goaltender.
Khudobin ended up signing in Carolina for the same $600,000 one-year contract that he would have received in Boston, but he wanted more term and dollars from the Bruins to continue as Tuukka Rask’s backup. Instead the Bruins signed Chad Johnson to the same $600,000 deal, and have watched the 27-year-old step up to give Rask some rest over the last two weeks while building up a .939 save percentage since Jan. 1.
So things have worked out for Khudobin in Carolina, and with Johnson as the Bruins’ free-agent signing. Now they’re two NHL goaltenders that were in new, unfamiliar situations to start the season and have established themselves nicely.
* Old friend Mark Stuart was a plus-9 in his first nine games in Winnipeg under new coach Paul Maurice, and appears to have found his comfort zone with the Jets new coaching staff.
* One name I keep hearing linked to the Edmonton Oilers is LA Kings bottom six grinder Kyle Clifford, who also isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him as part of the return to Edmonton in a Sam Gagner deal as the Oilers continue to build a roster that’s tough to play against with Matt Hendricks and Matt Fraser as well.
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.