He still remembers the moment. It is there, vivid, in his mind. The regular season was on the horizon, with just one final preseason game to get through, against the Red Wings at TD Garden. They almost made it. And then, as David Krejci recalled, and as Milan Lucic recalled, there was a faceoff. And there was an injury.
The moment might have changed everything.
As Krejci joked, half-seriously, half-ruefully, to reporters before his first game this preseason, “I remember the injury. It was the last game against Detroit. I kind of toe pick, and that’s when it happened. So I’ll just try not to toe pick tonight.”
There was nothing he wanted less. Nothing the Bruins wanted less. Because while the injury to Zdeno Chara last season was devastating, as was the overuse of Tuukka Rask and the ramifications of the Johnny Boychuk trade, the disintegration of the team’s offense might have been the reason behind everything. And the injury to Krejci might have been the reason behind that.
“He was never able to recover from it, and it affected him and it affected the team, and unfortunately we weren’t able to give ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs because of it — and here we are now,” Lucic said.
“There’s a new-look Bruins team. I’m not there anymore. Who knows what the team would look like today if he was healthy all of last year?”
The Bruins might have made the playoffs. Lucic might still be in Boston. Peter Chiarelli. Dougie Hamilton. Reilly Smith. Might, might, might.
So while it’s hard to say what would have happened if Krejci had avoided the toe pick and the groin injury that cost him the first part of the season, followed by the partially torn MCL in his left knee that knocked him out for more than a month in February and March, it’s easy to look at the Bruins’ drop on offense — from third in the league in 2013-14 (3.15 goals per game) to 22d in 2014-15 (2.55) — and see a group that misfired far more than it succeeded in putting pucks in the net.
The creation of those goals, of course, is a specialty of Krejci’s, with the 292 assists he has amassed (along with 117 goals) since entering the NHL at age 20. That influence could be seen in a preseason game in Detroit two weeks ago, a two-goal performance in which he looked like the player who inspired Chiarelli to sign him last September to a six-year contract extension with a $7.25 million cap hit that kicks in this season.
It was after that game that coach Claude Julien offered a clipped, 10-word assessment that might just be the most succinct way to describe what happened to the Bruins last season: “I always say, our team often goes as David goes.”
Numbers can often be misleading. They can often distract from reality, and point out fluff rather than substance. Still, there is this: When Krejci has scored a goal for the Bruins over the last four seasons, the team has lost eight times, including just four times over the last three seasons.
In such games, the Bruins are 40-8-4.
“I guess you could say, especially looking at last year, you kind of take for granted what you have until it’s taken away from you,” said Lucic, who was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in June. “You saw that last year in how the team struggled offensively, I struggled offensively.
“There wasn’t that primary or secondary scoring that you’re used to seeing from the Bruins in years past. And I think with Krech out of the lineup, there was a lot of evidence of that.”
Since Krejci has been with Boston, the Bruins have twice made it to the Stanley Cup Final, and both times Krejci led the NHL in playoff scoring. In 2010-11, Krejci had 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) as the Bruins won the Cup. In 2012-13, it was 26 points (9-17) as the Bruins got within 17 seconds of Game 7 of the Final.
“I think most players that have had the success — he’s led playoffs in scoring — I think he expects that of himself and that’s what you want in whether you call them star players, core players, however you want to classify them, those guys are accepting of the challenge,” said Don Sweeney, who replaced Chiarelli as general manager.
“First and foremost, I think that’s important for your whole group. It takes pressure off of other players that are trying to get to that position.”
So when Julien said that his team goes as Krejci goes, it was not the first time the center had heard that.
“I have heard that before,” he said at the team’s media day last week. “Pressure — that could be pressure, but I put the pressure on myself the most, so if there’s pressure coming, that would be from me.
“So it’s nice to hear these words, but again, talking about confidence, and when I hear these kind of comments, it gives me confidence to go out next game, next practice, whatever, and do my thing.”
As the Bruins are constructed, Krejci being able to do his thing affects the team more when he is off the ice than on it. That was easy to see last season when Krejci’s absence forced other players and other lines into situations in which they were far less likely to have success than they would have been otherwise.
Carl Soderberg, for example, was an excellent third-line center, especially when grouped with Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson on a unit that had the ability both to put pucks in the net and to be defensively responsible. Soderberg was a significantly worse second-line center.
“Any team that loses one of their best players — if not their best offensive forward — they’re in trouble,” Kelly said. “You hope that other guys can pick up the slack and contribute, but it hurts you.
“You have things planned out that you have Dave in the lineup for the entire season, and he’s playing with X and Y and he’s getting X amount of points, and then when he’s not there, it is tough.
“Dave is an elite player in the league for a reason. We rely upon him heavily.”
The ripple effect crippled the Bruins, costing them the depth that had been their hallmark in previous successful seasons. As much as a team can be built to withstand the inevitable injuries, the inevitable underperformance of players, there are some things that are simply impossible to get through.
Such was the injury to Krejci.
“It’s not only his ability, but how he makes everyone around him better and brings their game up,” Kelly said. “It’s a domino effect. Teams have to play top-line defensemen and top-line players against his line, then, say, Carl, our line, gets to play against [bottom-pairing defensemen]. So it’s almost like a domino effect that every line is helped out when he’s in the lineup.”
There is, it sometimes seems, a heaviness weighing down Krejci, a pause in the happiness that this summer brought. Krejci and his wife, Naomi, had their first child in August, a girl named Elina. As Krejci said, reflecting on his time with Julien, “He kind of saw me maturing from a kid to a man to a family man, so he’s seen me grow up.”
The maturation has landed him here, squarely, with a family and a big-money deal and the expectations and burdens of a season of disappointment spilling over into this one.
He watched this summer as the reality of the business spirited away his friend and linemate, Lucic, an occurrence that led Krejci to retreat to the safety and comfort of his workouts.
“I kind of buried myself in the gym,” he said. “I was just trying to work out, try to come back here, whatever happens, and be a better person.
“I kind of feel like we have a second chance. Just going to go out there, do everything I can. I love this city, I love this team, so I want to stay here. I’ll do all I can to help the team win some hockey games, especially early on. That’s the most important thing.”
Krejci spent the offseason altering parts of his training — acknowledging at one point, “I’m not the youngest guy anymore; I’m a little older than 22” — as he tried to come up with a way to keep himself on the ice, to avoid potentially recurring injuries. He took better care of his body and faced no setbacks, working on preventative care to try to avoid what happened last season.
The fear of the nagging injury, though, still remains.
He also dealt with a loss, watching Lucic fade off into the Los Angeles sunset. Krejci relies on comfort, on consistency, on knowing exactly who is playing beside him and where that player will be. In Lucic, he had found that person, a longterm sidekick who had lasted through multiple changes on the pair’s right side.
This year, Krejci will have to adjust: To being 29. To having a paycheck with more zeroes and more responsibility. To Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak.
“David, he’s built that into his own personal goals, wanting to be a great player,” said Sweeney, who repeatedly referred to Krejci as a “catalyst.” “He’s put up numbers now. I think he holds himself in that, amongst those types of players. So that’s a good thing from where I sit.
“Is it added pressure? Yeah, you can’t run from it. Every athlete recognizes along with a big number comes big expectations.”
It’s something Krejci recognizes within himself, when he says that he feels best when he’s completely involved in the game, when he pushes to be part of the penalty kill, when he states his desire to play in all 82 games. That’s when he feels comfortable. That’s when he feels important.
As he says, “That’s what kind of role I would love to play.”
“He always pushes,” Lucic said. “He’s always pushing to be the best he can be. He’s always pushing himself to contribute to the team, which is what you want to see out of one of your top centermen.
“He wants to be the guy. He always wants to — not in a selfish way, but he always wants to contribute any way that he can.”
It’s what Krejci wants. And, if there’s hope for the Bruins this season, it should be what they want, too.
That, and no toe picks.