The summer before his senior season at the University of North Dakota, Danny Kristo had a decision to make.
Return to school to close out a college career that had seen equal parts success and adversity or leave to begin his pro career with the Montreal Canadiens. With Montreal entering a transitional summer during which it replaced its general manager and coaching staff, Kristo made the decision to go back to school.
A year later, Kristo is coming off a great individual seasons and is facing a prime opportunity to help the New York Rangers, who traded for the Minnesota native during the summer. The second-round pick (No. 56) of the Canadiens in 2008 enjoyed a monster senior season at North Dakota.
His 52 points were the second-highest total in the NCAA and the forward was named a first-team All-American. The Fighting Sioux were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament by eventual champions Yale, but Kristo completed his season with a bronze medal playing for Team USA at the IIHF World Championship.
Kristo seemed poised to enjoy a first pro season with either Montreal or Hamilton in the American Hockey League when he was traded on July 2 for Christian Thomas. It was a unique twist that could turn the spotlight squarely on the 23-year-old forward.
"You never expect that, especially with me just signing with Montreal. It was a shock, but it's kind of a good thing to get traded. It means a team really wants you," Kristo told NHL.com. "[The Rangers] said they had some scouts out in Finland when I was playing [in the World Championship]. They said I was on their radar since I got drafted by Montreal. I have just got to go into training camp and work hard, and do whatever I can to make the team."
On paper, Kristo's quest to make the Rangers' roster for opening night seems tough. After all, the team has enjoyed quality depth up front for the past several seasons. But with captain Ryan Callahan still rehabbing following offseason shoulder surgery, there could be an opening on the depth chart entering the 2013-14 season. It's a spot the Rangers front office sees Kristo potentially filling.
"That's been brought up, with the injuries and stuff. The fact that I did play college for four years and I'm a little bit older [helps]," Kristo said. "I'm going to the camp and I'm just going to work as hard as I can. Obviously the ultimate goal is to make the team out of training camp."
Entering the first NHL training camp of his career, Kristo is at a potential turning point in his hockey career. But the real turning point in the wing's development may have come shortly after Kristo decided to return for his senior season. It was then that he was named an assistant captain and was tasked with providing leadership on and off the ice.
"Physically as well as mentality, Dan was ready to take on a much heavier workload than in his first three years. We gave him that workload and he handled it pretty well," North Dakota coach David Hakstol told NHL.com. "I think he grew up from a young talented boy that could play the game. I think he grew into a pro, a guy who knows what he has to do to be successful."
That's high praise considering some of the adversity Kristo faced early on in his career at North Dakota. After being named the WCHA's rookie of the year as a freshman, Kristo's sophomore campaign hit a rough patch when he was forced to miss 10 games after a late-night incident left him hospitalized with severe frostbite on a foot and a hand. The incident quickly raised questions about Kristo's maturity.
"I think he hit a crossroads during his sophomore year and really had to reevaluate a couple of things," Hakstol said. "Every player goes through that at different times."
But rather than become a cautionary tale, Kristo rebounded from the injury to establish himself in a storied program that has seen the likes of Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Travis Zajac roam its halls.
"I know a lot of guys that played at North Dakota that have been through the same thing. Good buddies. T.J. Oshie is one of my best friends and he's been through a lot too," Kristo said. "It's nice to talk to those guys. They can help you through some stuff."
The confidence gained from an excellent senior season, not to mention the support of a college program that never gave up on him, should serve Kristo well as he enters Rangers camp. And with a potential spot available on a roster dealing with injuries entering training camp, he's getting another important opportunity to show what he can do.