There was an actual gleam in Torey Krug’s eyes.
The Bruins defenseman was standing on the field at Gillette Stadium two weeks ago when he was asked about his team’s defense for the upcoming season. He was asked whether the Bruins need to bring in another top-four defenseman.
“Why not just put me up there?” Krug said.
He smiled. There was that gleam.
He pulled back, but only briefly.
“Listen, those are decisions that obviously [general manager] Don Sweeney makes,” Krug said. “For me personally, I feel like I’m ready for that challenge.
“It’s up to the coaching staff as well, but right now I’m eyeing that spot, and until somebody tells me otherwise, I’m going to go take it in camp.
“Everything is earned. It’s not given. And, for me, I feel like I’m on that road to earn it. But those are decisions for the management, the coaching staff to make, so I’m going to do my best to make sure they make the right one.”
When the Bruins opted to trade Dougie Hamilton to Calgary on the weekend of the draft, they left a gaping hole on their blue line. They still have Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg for their top two pairings, though Seidenberg struggled significantly through much of last season.
But beyond those two, the Bruins have mostly questions in terms of their defense. They could return Zach Trotman (who has a one-way deal for 2015-16) to Chara’s right, where he was at the end of the season with Hamilton injured. They could use Adam McQuaid with Seidenberg, though McQuaid is best suited for a third-pairing role.
They also could mix and match with options such as Kevan Miller, Colin Miller, Matt Irwin, and Joe Morrow.
And then there’s the 24-year-old Krug, who generally has played in the bottom pairing, along with his duties on the power play.
The Bruins have shed good blue liners over the last two seasons in Hamilton and Johnny Boychuk. They have seen injuries to Chara and Seidenberg. Their best defenseman is 38 years old.
So, yes, even the front office has seen that this might not be enough, especially for a team that missed the playoffs last season.
“We still have guys that played for us last year that are returning, a number of guys,” Bruins president Cam Neely said recently. “If we can improve in that area, I know Don would do that in a heartbeat. That’s something that we’ve talked about on a regular basis.”
That was weeks ago. There has been no improvement yet, though the Bruins have kicked the tires on options to upgrade, including Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, and even Marek Zidlicky. The problem is they have little space under the salary cap, set for $71.4 million.
When Krug signed a new contract in March, he was, as he said then, betting on himself.
Instead of a multiyear deal, like the one departed forward Reilly Smith took, Krug signed a one-year extension worth $3.4 million, and both Krug and then-general manager Peter Chiarelli acknowledged the term was partially because Krug wanted to prove himself capable of more responsibility.
And, of course, he wanted to parlay that show of responsibility into a long-term, high-dollar deal.
So Krug watched Hamilton’s departure with significant interest.
“There’s 24 minutes a night that has to be accounted for,” said Krug, referring to Hamilton’s average of 21:20 on ice last season. “Whether one guy steps in and takes a lot of them or all of them or we do it by committee, it’s a D group that has to learn. Without familiar faces, guys have to come in and learn the system and also be able to play every single night.
“We’re losing obviously a player that brought a lot to our team. At the same time, if you look back and worry about it, we’re going to find ourselves in trouble. So I hope these guys, including myself, have the right outlook on it mentally. I know I’m excited for the opportunity and I hope they are too.”
If nothing else, there will be competition in camp for spots. The Bruins have seven defensemen with one-way contracts in Chara, Seidenberg, McQuaid, Krug, Trotman, Irwin, and Kevan Miller, and they still have Morrow and Colin Miller pushing to be in the NHL.
It has helped him this summer in the gym, he said, in getting ready for training camp and the season.
“I’ve always bet on myself, and I know you have the quotes of me saying that before,” Krug said. “It’s nothing new to me. It’s an exciting time for myself personally. You’re always trying to improve your role and you want to show your worth to your organization and your teammates, and obviously to help this group win the Stanley Cup would help all of that.
“But you’re earning everything that you’re given. That goes for me. That goes for the forward group, anybody’s that’s coming in trying to make our team. That’s the best part of it.”
The gleam is there, and Krug means to make good on it.
“That’s how I see it,” he said. “And until anybody tells me otherwise, I’m going to come into camp ready to go and take that spot.”