WILMINGTON — Torey Krug’s neck was the giveaway. It bulged, as if someone had packed it with bowling balls.
Ben Prentiss does not approve of such necks.
Prentiss is a strength and conditioning coach. Prentiss likes his athletes lean up top and Yellow Pages-thick in the legs and backside, the engine room of an NHL player’s explosive power.
Prentiss does not want his charges to resemble NFL running backs. Last summer, when Krug reported to Prentiss Hockey Performance in Darien, Conn., a football in his mitts would have completed the look.
Krug’s body fat was 14 percent. The Popeye-like muscles on his neck and back were anchors instead of accelerants.
“In our gym, he was fat, to be kind,” Prentiss said.
Now the slug who trailed the lead dogs in summer workouts is gone. Krug plummeted to 9.2 percent body fat. The 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound Bruins defenseman sucked brawn out of unnecessary areas and stuffed it into his silo-shaped thighs.
In the second round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers, Krug, 22, and fellow rookies Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton helped the Bruins overcome injuries to Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, and Wade Redden.
On May 16, two days after being promoted from Providence, Krug scored his first NHL goal, in Game 1 vs. the Rangers. He followed with a goal and an assist in Game 2.
A player with three games of NHL regular-season experience wound up scoring four goals in his first five playoff games — the first player in NHL history to turn such a trick. Krug’s story is so unlikely that it belongs in the New Yorker’s Fiction Issue.
“I’m a big Bobby Orr fan,” said Tom Newton, an assistant coach at Michigan State, where Krug played for three years. “I don’t think Bobby Orr did that.”
Krug has grabbed the playoffs by the throat. He pushes the puck with pace. He creates shooting lanes. Once clear, he rips pucks toward the net.
In an environment where others shrink, Krug is excelling because of his hockey IQ, competitiveness, hands, and skating.
The first three qualities flow freely. The fourth doesn’t.
“It’s not always easy,” said Krug, who was a two-time captain at Michigan State. “I lose it if I’m not constantly thinking about it. I’m always trying to work my edges. It never came natural to me.”
The NHL rewards vertical prowess. Defensemen such as Hamilton (6-5, 199) that roll off the league’s fantasy assembly line are first-round picks.
But at the draft, teams ignore hobbits like Krug. They become hockey vagrants, drifting between buses with their gear rattling in their bags like nickels in a paper cup. Especially if they can’t skate.
On his toes
Newton recognized Krug’s competitiveness and hockey sense when he played midget minor for Michigan’s Belle Tire against a Markham, Ontario, team that included future NHLers Steven Stamkos and Michael Del Zotto.
Skill and fire were innate. Skating was not.
The summer after his Michigan State freshman year, Krug hired skating coach Ron Gay. Gay saw that Krug leaned forward and skated on his toes. A shove or slip dumped Krug on the ice.
Gay wanted Krug in the center of his blades. He would have more power and better balance in battles.
“His upper body would fight a little bit with the lower body,” recalled Gay. “Once he goes off his toes and more to mid-blade of the skate, he’d get more powerful, more sturdy. He’d get more power side to side — that lateral movement you need to walk the blue line and create that lane.”
Krug was a slow learner.
“I felt like the worst hockey player in the world,” Krug said of his first attempts.
Gay reassured Krug that by the third week, he’d feel fine. Gay was right. With practice, Krug hit his sweet spot. Krug’s skating soared.
The following season, as a sophomore captain, Krug recorded 11 goals and 17 assists. He scored three of those goals in a 4-3 overtime win over archrival Michigan on Jan. 7, 2011. The Bruins took notice.
As a junior, Krug had 12 goals and 22 assists. Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney and college scout Ryan Nadeau monitored Krug. GM Peter Chiarelli scouted Krug in Bridgeport, Conn., where Michigan State lost to Union in the NCAA Tournament. Chiarelli was sold.
On March 25, 2012, two days after the season-ending loss to Union, Krug signed a three-year, $2.75 million contract. The Bruins trumped multiple suitors.
“Many people would think that’s a hard team to make,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos. “That’s not what he was thinking about. He was thinking about a way to go to an organization that’s committed to winning and being champions.”
Krug flaunted his footwork in Game 5 against the Rangers. The Bruins were on the power play. Brad Marchand had the puck on the left wing and was curling back to give Tyler Seguin a pass. Krug had rolled over the boards to replace Zdeno Chara.
Krug read that if he shifted to the right, he’d have a shooting lane before Ryan Callahan could block the shot. Krug shuffled back, squared his hips, and stepped into Seguin’s pass. Krug pounded the puck over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game at 1-1.
Gay, Krug’s skating coach, was in Nashville when he saw his pupil’s goal. Gay recognized a maneuver they had practiced repeatedly.
“It’s a quick motion,” Gay said. “He opens up the hips a little bit. With that push, that rotation of the hips, he’s in that shooting lane to take that shot. He just makes that quick adjustment.
“Is he going to be some kind of superhero? I don’t know. But he’s making the most of his time right now.”
Krug has taken 16 shots and buried 25 percent of them. His head and legs put him in position to score. His hands do the rest.
But before the Bruins could unveil their offensive dynamo, Krug had to prove his defensive reliability to his bosses. The Rangers rolled out a surly third line that included two behemoths: Brian Boyle (6-7, 244) and Taylor Pyatt (6-4, 230). If Krug couldn’t battle with them, the Bruins would have to tap a burlier defenseman to jostle with the juggernauts.
“That was the only thing we were going to keep an eye on,” coach Claude Julien said. “We knew that playing against the third and fourth lines — the third one with the Pyatts, the Boyles, and [Derek] Dorsett is extremely physical — was going to be something we would keep an eye on.”
Krug didn’t shrink. When he and Adam McQuaid were on the ice, the New York third line didn’t score at even strength.
In retrospect, as the hockey folks say in Krug’s native Michigan, the ex-Spartan was properly baked.
Shaping up well
The roll call of players blowing past Krug in summer sessions included senior citizen Martin St. Louis and ex-Bruin Colton Orr, who is not known for swift skates.
“The first couple weeks, he barely made it through the workouts,” Prentiss said. “He was dragging. It was definitely an eye-opener for him to see what it takes.”
Krug was not out of shape, but he hadn’t learned the commitment required of life as a professional hockey player. He wasn’t familiar with Olympic weight training. He didn’t monitor his meals.
Krug shed the fat. He packed on good weight. Milk, ice cream, pizza, and bread were out. In were almond milk, fish, vegetables, nuts, berries.
By becoming leaner, Krug gained muscle mass. With more mass, he produced more force. With more force, he got faster.
Krug also accelerated his VO2 max. With greater aerobic capacity, he could submit an all-out shift. After resting on the bench, Krug could deliver repeated shifts without diminished performance.
Krug played in 38 games in each of his three Michigan State years. This season, the first-year pro has dressed for 76 games between Boston and Providence.
“I can’t even tell the difference,” Krug said. “I’m not getting tired. Even when I’m not at the rink, I feel more full of energy.”
Sixty-three of those games took place during the regular season in Providence. As an AHL rookie, he had 13 goals and 32 assists.
In the AHL playoffs, Providence dropped its first two games to Hershey but fought back to claim a 3-2 series win.
Krug had two assists in the first round. He dressed for two more games against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round before being promoted to Boston May 14.
In Providence, Krug jousted against men, learning how to command space, then control it, against big forwards in danger areas.
Without that development — Red Wings general manager Ken Holland refers to it as “baking” — the native of Livonia, Mich., may not have been ready for NHL playoff battle.
Chiarelli observed that in the first half of the AHL season, Krug wandered positionally.
Asked if Krug could be playing this well without AHL prep work, Chiarelli said, “I don’t think so. What he learned down there was the significance of defending at his size.”
The product so far is a fast-moving, crisp-shooting, head-up NHL defenseman. Krug is tied with Johnny Boychuk and Los Angeles’s Slava Voynov for most playoff goals among blue liners, and he is averaging 15:52 of ice time per game.
Krug is locked into his spot on the third pairing and No. 2 power-play unit. Against Pittsburgh, he will play against bottom-six hard hats such as Matt Cooke, Brandon Sutter, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, and Craig Adams. The Penguins are scripting a game plan to neutralize the undrafted defenseman’s pace-pushing approach and power-play crispness.
The quality that has amazed his coaches, teammates, and opponents is his confidence. Krug oozes swagger.
The Krug T-shirts stocked in the TD Garden pro shop for Game 5 of the previous round are sold out. More are on order and should be available for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. They may not remain on the shelves long.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.