BOSTON -- A player who scores four goals in his first five games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs can earn a lot of future good will from his coaching staff.
Unfortunately, that good will is not a free pass.
That's what Torey Krug has learned as the first couple months of his second professional season have unfolded. After emerging as a surprise offensive producer in the postseason last year, Krug made the Boston Bruins roster this season out of training camp for the first time.
The Bruins have kept Krug in their lineup through all of their 17 games heading into their home date with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. He's rewarded them with six goals, 11 points and a plus-4 rating. But Krug's high-octane offensive game comes with some errors without the puck, both in his own end and when he decides to join the attack. Of course, there are different ways coaches can address a player's misdeed, and on the Bruins bench the gentler approach is usually the choice.
"You know, I'm not freaking out when I go to the bench because I know they're not going to be hollering at me," Krug said. "They're going to be there. They're trying to develop me into a well-rounded player. So I'm coming off the ice and they're not screaming at me. So that's good. It's more of a conversation, ‘Hey, this is what you did wrong; this is what you should do next time.' And I ask a lot of questions. I don't know if I ask too many questions. That's up to them, I guess."
The Bruins are attempting to create an ideal environment for Krug, 22, to flourish at both ends of the ice. In the bubble they've built around him is managed ice time (17:43 per game) that only extends when the Bruins are dealing with injuries, a green light to exercise his offensive skills, and a softer touch when trying to get him to make sure he doesn't make the same mistake twice.
Bruins coach Claude Julien has heaped slightly tempered praise on Krug. The coach refers to Krug as an offensive defenseman with the type of talents the Bruins haven't had in the past seven seasons Julien's been behind the Boston bench. And any criticism of Krug's defensive game always comes with disclaimers about him learning to overcome his 5-foot-9, 180-pound disadvantage against the biggest and best players in the world, and his lack of experience as a pro, which includes 70 regular-season and playoff games with Providence of the American Hockey League and 35 total games with Boston.
Based on Krug's unique skill set, the Bruins coaches might also be learning on the fly as they try to figure out how best to harness Krug's talents to aid the team and avoid pitfalls.
"You have to let the player play," Julien said. "I think you just let him play. His game offensively is almost a natural part of it, so you let him do that stuff. I don't think there's too many times where he makes bad decisions up front. If he does, it's going to happen once in a while, there's always a risk and reward; you want to minimize that risk. That's what you want to do. But right now I think he's doing well offensively so certainly not going to take that part of his game away from him."
The message for Krug from the coaches hasn't changed from last spring, when the player stepped into an injury-ravaged defense corps and scored four goals in the Bruins' five-game series victory against the New York Rangers in the second round. Julien said he told Krug back then, "I don't want you to be afraid to make mistakes. Just go out there and play."
So with the message the same, Krug's production has been even better. He's on pace for a 30-goal season and he's helped the Bruins' oft-maligned power play creep into the top half of the NHL in terms of success percentage. He's also making the adjustments he needs to avoid being a liability without the puck. Subtle body positioning, a full bag of breakout-pass tricks (including a between-the-legs outlet that's tough to stop) and other veteran moves are seeping into Krug's game with every bit of experience he gains.
Krug had every opportunity to take his foot off the gas in his development process coming into this season. His performance against the Rangers earned him a full-time job in the ensuing rounds against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, who beat the Bruins in six games for the Stanley Cup. Krug became a household name around New England and his native Michigan, but never let his head swell so that his undersized body would teeter over. He still went to training camp with the idea in his head that he was a long shot for a job, even while most others considered him a lock.
"Nah, I guess that's just who I am. I don't like to let that stuff get to my head," Krug said. "It comes a lot from my parents, the way I grew up, a blue-collar family. I just stay grounded and stay true to your roots, and you always have to understand that there's someone trying to get your job. So for me it's all business. I know this year coming in there's so many defensemen that can step in and play for the Boston Bruins. And I want to be that guy that does it the whole year. I don't want to just come in here a couple games at a time. So that was the mentality I had and I'll always have that mentality even … say I play 10 years in the League, I always know there's going to be a younger guy coming in."
Krug, who made the switch from forward to defense as a Pee Wee, learned more than work ethic and humility at home. His father Kyle was his coach most of his life until he landed at Michigan State, where he produced 34 points in 38 games as a junior before he signed with the Bruins. Playing for his dad also taught the younger Krug that the Bruins' quieter approach to addressing miscues better suits his game.
"I grew up playing for dad and he was harder on me than he was other players. I'd make mistakes and he's yelling and I'm sitting," Krug said. "But it's nice to have it, especially at this level, you learn a lot more as opposed to getting yelled at and then all of a sudden you turn your mind off because you're sick of getting yelled at. Now it's great, we're having great conversations, we're learning, and that's not just me, that's everybody."
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