Torey Krug considers Erik Karlsson the man.
Of the power-play quarterbacks in the NHL, Karlsson is the one who always catches Krug’s eye. Karlsson plays the position with efficiency, panache, and imagination. Offensively, the Ottawa defenseman is the personification of cool.
“He’s so smooth,” Krug said. “He doesn’t second-guess himself. He makes great decisions. When he does make those decisions, he sticks with them. He doesn’t second-guess. He doesn’t stutter. There’s no hesitation in his game. It’s a lot of fun to watch when he’s being creative out there. He can shoot the puck. He can pass the puck. He can see the ice. He’s just impressive.”
It’s pretty good, then, when you have twice as many power-play goals as the player you consider the best at the position.
Krug plays a defined role. He is the left defenseman on the Bruins’ third pairing. When the big boys come tearing into the Bruins’ zone, Krug is not the defenseman his coaches want on the ice.
But when the Bruins are up a man, they let him loose. In 57 games, Krug has six goals and 10 assists on the power play. By comparison, Karlsson has three goals and 22 man-advantage assists. Krug trails only Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara in power-play goals.
Of Krug’s 17:30 of ice time per game, 2:43 is on the power play, most of any Bruin. According to www.behindthenet.ca, Krug starts 65.3 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, tops among NHL defensemen. The statistic shows that the Bruins know what kind of offensive weapon they have, and are not afraid to use it.
In those man-up segments, Krug has been a team-changing addition. He is the piece that general manager Peter Chiarelli had failed to find since he assumed his position in 2006.
Consider the point men the Bruins have used since then: Chara, Paul Mara, Dennis Wideman, Brad Stuart, Derek Morris, Matt Hunwick, Steven Kampfer, Tomas Kaberle, Joe Corvo, Brian Rolston, and Dougie Hamilton. Chara and Morris shot harder. Hunwick skated quicker.
But none had Krug’s caffeinated package of straight-line skating, mobility, vision, and shot. Few around the league do. Weber is a puck pounder. Duncan Keith is an end-to-end rusher. Krug has a good helping of everything.
The process shows how hard it is to identify and acquire a power-play weapon such as Krug. It took boots-on-the-ground work in East Lansing, Mich., from former director of collegiate scouting John Weisbrod, assistant GM Don Sweeney, and scout Ryan Nadeau to help the Bruins target and sign the undrafted Michigan State defenseman to an entry-level contract.
Everybody knows the rest. In last season’s playoffs, three of Krug’s four goals came on the power play. Krug played 2:26 of man-advantage action per game. It was enough to guarantee him a spot on the No. 1 unit heading into training camp. Krug hasn’t let down his bosses.
Assistant Geoff Ward knows Krug’s effect better than most. Ward’s responsibilities include the power play. Last season, the Bruins had the 26th-ranked power play in the NHL (14.8 percent). In the 2011-12 playoffs, the Bruins scored on 8.7 percent of their power plays during their first-round exit against Washington. The Bruins shook off their 11.4 percent PP efficiency in the 2010-11 postseason to win the Stanley Cup.
Krug’s emergence has changed things. The Bruins have the eighth-best power play (20.4 percent). Opposing penalty killers can’t press the issue at the blue line because of Krug’s puck-moving touch. Because they must respect Krug’s dishing, there’s more room for the Bruins to work on the edges of the PP box.
Their playbook was restricted because of their blue-line bobbles. Now, more pages are available.
“Teams have always attacked us really hard at the top in the past,” Ward said. “Because those guys move the puck well back there, they can move it along the line. They can move the puck quickly into the guy in the middle to beat the pressure. Now teams have to stop and back off. That’s allowed us the luxury of having more sets, allowing us to get the puck into the hands of other guys who shoot it. It’s been a big help on our back end on the power play, for sure.”
The biggest plus to Krug’s approach is his pace. Everything is at full tempo. To conserve energy for his important defensive shifts, Chara used to float back into the defensive zone to retrieve pucks. By the time Chara approached the neutral zone, precious seconds of power-play time had ticked away.
Even Krug’s retrievals are brisk. He knows the power play is his workplace. There’s no need to save his stuff for late-game defensive shifts. Krug sprints back for pucks and is at full churn when he approaches the offensive blue line — the place, according to Ward, where the 22-year-old has improved the most.
Last season and earlier this season, Krug was set in his reads. As a left-shot defenseman, Krug’s easiest entry is a forehand pass to his left, where Chara usually posts up at the blue line. If teams took that option away, Krug needed time to process his secondary looks.
Now, Krug is confident enough to reach deeper into his bag.
“When you initially get to a new scenario as a power-play player, you tend to want to go with that first option all the time,” Ward said. “A lot of the teams will take that option away. He’s gotten more comfortable looking for the second and third option.”
Krug’s trickledown effect is tangible. Chara is a far better option down low, where he can use his frame to blot out goalies’ sightlines and fish for pucks with his stick. Hamilton spells Krug as the point man on the No. 2 unit. Brad Marchand, the Bruins’ leading goal scorer, can’t even get on either unit because of the team’s options.
For as long as Chiarelli has been in Boston, the Bruins have tried to wedge square blocks into round holes at the point. That elusive puzzle piece is finally in place.
NBC will have a say in NHL participation
The players want to go to South Korea. The NHL and its owners are less eager to let their employees play in the Olympics without compensation to the league.
Neither may be the critical party in determining whether hockey’s best players will play in the 2018 Winter Games.
NBC holds the broadcast rights for 2018, like it did for this year’s Olympics and the 2010 Games in Vancouver. If NBC determines that NHL participation makes a significant impact on its Olympic revenue stream, it will make that known to the league’s power brokers. Assuming that happens, the NHL will move swiftly to please its primary television partner.
TV, after all, rules everything.
NBC has been a very good partner for the league. After the 2004-05 lockout, ESPN giggled at airing NHL games. NBC gave the NHL a home. Both parties have benefited from the deal.
NHL business is booming. The league is poised to expand to 32 teams, with Seattle being a lock to secure a franchise. The salary cap will be in the $70 million neighborhood in 2014-15.
NBC is taking advantage of the NHL’s rise. The United States-Russia shootout classic was the most-watched hockey game ever aired on NBC Sports Network. The game drew 4.1 million viewers on a Saturday morning, hardly a time that draws eyeballs. Online, the US-Czech Republic quarterfinal game generated 798,337 unique users on www.nbcolympics.com, which made it the most-streamed Olympic event ever.
The Olympic moneymakers are figure skating and skiing. They are the primetime showcases. Hockey is a supplementary draw. But if amateurs play in 2018, hockey numbers won’t just go down. They’ll drop off Mount Everest. It will be NBC’s call to determine whether that kind of loss will be sustainable.
Connecticut governor makes a play for team
Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Malloy, said he’s met with three groups regarding bringing the NHL back to Hartford. Malloy made his statements on WFSB’s “Face the State” on Feb. 9.
“If you’d asked me that question 14, 15 months ago, no chance,” Malloy said of the NHL returning to Hartford. “All of a sudden, in part because of the [lockout] in the NHL, the damage that caused, and realignment, do we have a shot at it? We have a shot at it. I’m going to go for it.”
Expansion to 32 teams is coming. The league must restore balance to the conferences. It’s not just unfair but ludicrous that eight teams in the East do not qualify for the playoffs while only seven clubs in the West go home.
To that end, Hartford is an unlikely landing spot. The easiest scenario would be to add two teams in the West, giving each conference 16 clubs. Seattle and Las Vegas are two candidates. If Hartford were in the mix, the NHL would have to move one of its Eastern Conference teams to the West.
Also, Hartford would need an upgrade over the XL Center, which opened in 1975. The Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, are the building’s primary hockey tenants. The Wolf Pack drew 4,547 for their 4-2 loss to Manchester on Feb. 15. The arena formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center is also home to University of Connecticut basketball. For the NHL to consider Hartford, the city would need a new facility.
Whalers redux is a long shot. But at least there’s talk.
Moulson would fit in LA
Matt Moulson was the King who got away. Once the Penguins, who drafted Moulson in the ninth round in 2003, declined to sign the Cornell standout, Los Angeles made him an offer. Moulson spent his seasons in the organization mostly in Manchester, the Kings’ AHL team. Instead of re-signing Moulson, the Kings let him walk. It was not a smart move. Upon signing with the Islanders, Moulson delivered three straight 30-goal seasons. Now, with the Kings scoring just 2.25 goals per game, second-fewest in the NHL, a reunion would benefit both parties. Buffalo will seek at least a first-round pick for Moulson. It’s an expensive but prudent move. The Kings would upgrade their second line by giving Mike Richards a scoring wing. That would give LA a stronger 1-2 punch: Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, followed by Richards and Moulson. The Kings could then drop Justin Williams or Dustin Brown to the No. 3 line. Moulson doesn’t play LA’s grinding, heavy game, but he can score. The Kings need that in bunches.
Halak may have St. Louis feeling the blues
The Olympics did not go well for Jaroslav Halak. The St. Louis netminder was expected to repeat his 2010 heroics, when he nearly backstopped Slovakia to a medal. Instead, Halak closed out the 2014 Games on the bench, replaced by KHL goalie Jan Laco, who isn’t even the starter on his Donbass HC team. Halak didn’t get any help from his teammates in Slovakia’s 7-1 loss to the Americans in the preliminary round. But Halak offered zero resistance and was pulled in the second period. It doesn’t serve as a good way for Halak to enter the stretch run and the playoffs with the Blues. If Halak remains shellshocked upon his return, it is GM Doug Armstrong’s duty to upgrade the position. Ryan Miller is the top goaltender on the trade market.
Maatta one of many for Penguins
At the earliest, Kris Letang will not play until mid-March while recovering from a stroke. Considering the seriousness of his condition, the Penguins do not know when Letang will be back in uniform. Not many teams could absorb the long-term absence of their best offensive defenseman. But the Penguins should be in good shape for the final push because of the continued improvement of rookie Olli Maatta. The 19-year-old doesn’t play Letang’s go-go game, but the smooth-moving Maatta has already gained the trust of his coaches. Maatta should be even better after his Olympic performance, trailing only Kimmo Timonen and Sami Vatanen in average ice time among Finland’s defensemen. Maatta plays a smart, controlled game. He is an untouchable for the Penguins, who also have blue-line depth in Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot, and Philip Samuelsson.
Long line behind Bishop
Kristers Gudlevskis, one of Tampa Bay’s goaltending prospects, nearly booted his NHL boss from the Olympics. In the quarterfinals, Gudlevskis stopped 55 shots in Latvia’s 2-1 loss to Canada, led by executive director Steve Yzerman, who is also the Lightning’s GM. Tampa picked Gudlevskis in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Even though he’s playing well in Syracuse, Tampa’s AHL affiliate, Gudlevskis isn’t even the highest-rated goalie in the organization. The Lightning picked Andrei Vasilevski 19th overall in 2012, making him the first goalie taken in the draft. Vasilevski projects to be the better NHLer. The Lighting also have Adam Wilcox, their sixth-round pick in 2011, playing big minutes as a sophomore for the University of Minnesota. Tampa’s depth doesn’t indicate good things for No. 2 goalie Anders Lindback, Ben Bishop’s backup. Lindback will be a restricted free agent after this season. The Lightning could re-sign Lindback to a short-term extension or they could flip the former Nashville backup if they believe one of their young goalies is ready to be Bishop’s understudy.
Cohen rehabbing for comeback
Former Bruins prospect Colby Cohen, currently a Hockey East studio analyst for NESN, is eager to resume his playing career. Cohen underwent groin surgery earlier this month. The Bruins did not qualify Cohen last summer, making the former Boston University defenseman a free agent. Cohen tried to play for Assat Pori (Finland) and San Antonio (AHL) this season, but called an end to his year because of his condition. Cohen pulled the plug in October but had to wait until this month for the surgery because of insurance paperwork. Cohen will continue his rehab with local strength and conditioning expert Mike Boyle. Cohen, who turns 25 in April, will have to pursue a two-way contract or a camp invitation because of his layoff.
The Islanders resume post-break play 12 points out of eighth place in the East. Their standing, plus John Tavares’ season-ending knee injury against Latvia, will make the Islanders sure sellers. GM Garth Snow’s first priority is to reclaim the first-round pick he gave to Buffalo in the Thomas Vanek trade . . . Former Bruin Mike Mottau was among the mourners paying respects to Dick Kelley on Monday. Kelley died because of ALS complications on Feb. 13. In Boston College’s sports information office, Kelley’s primary responsibility was men’s basketball. But Kelley was a regular and welcome host at the rink. Kelley treated everyone with kindness and professionalism, from the national magazine writer to the student newspaper reporter. Kelley made his family, employer, and colleagues proud.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.