Becoming the Bull: Torey Krug

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 23:  Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins looks on against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull.  Become the bull!- Atreyu, Becoming the Bull

Nothing has come easy for Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, but as the 2016-17 NHL season dawns,  he enters his fourth full campaign as an NHL defenseman and the first year of an offseason extension that has finally begun to give him his just due.

Much has been made of Krug’s size, but the reality is- when you’re as talented, intelligent and driven like he is, size doesn’t really matter. That won’t prevent the critics, who focus on his physical challenges to contain some of the NHL’s premier power forwards without taking his positioning, active stick and gap control into account, from blathering on and on about how he’s “overpaid” at an AAV of $5.25 million. That’s their opinion, and they’re welcome to it, but Krug’s success is fueled by such snubs. He’s heard it before and he will again, but after shoulder surgery and an opportunity to come back healthy for the first time since early in the 2015-16 season, the 25-year-old is ready to take his play to the next level.

Krug is, in fact, becoming the bull…the bull of the Boston blue line as the team’s highest-scoring defender from last season (and that accomplished with one effective arm) while continuing to evolve as a player who can compensate for his lack of height and weight with the guile and natural smarts to shut down opposition chances.

Atreyu put out the song “Becoming the Bull” in 2008 and it resonates personally with me, as I had just returned from a 15-month combat tour in Baghdad, Iraq during the infamous troop surge of 2007. It was a tough slog, and to this day, I am honored to have served with so many great Americans (not to mention coalition partners and the Iraqi troops we fought shoulder-to-shoulder with against al Qaeda and Jaysh al Mahdi militia) in Task Force Dragon- the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) at Forward Operating Base Falcon. We had responsibility for some of the meanest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq’s capital city and 100 Americans in our unit made the ultimate sacrifice, along with another 800 more who were wounded in action. I was fortunate- got to come home with health and psyche intact, and can remember hearing Becoming the Bull for the first time on Sirius radio’s Octane (nu metal) channel and being taken with it immediately. It has remained a personal favorite mp3 on my workout playlist ever since, and this morning, as I was doing my shoulder and biceps resistance training, along with a 70-minute interval workout, it came on and listening to the lyrics, it struck me as a perfect song to describe Krug’s evolution.

It begins thusly:

Grab the bull by the horns the old adage goes.
Nobody tells you where to go from there.
It seems like fate’s pulling you.
Decisions have to be made.
The the best path is the hardest earned.

Think about those lyrics for a second. In 2012, Krug finished his junior season at Michigan State, and his second as the team captain. He had decided to turn pro and sign as an unrestricted free agent- he was grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and after going undrafted from 2009-11 (to his continued disappointment) he had the opportunity to choose his NHL destination, coming off a 12-goal, 34-point year (38 games) with the Spartans. Nobody could tell him where to go from there, so he had to make a decision in a field of numerous suitors. It seems like fate was pulling him, too.

The Bruins had expressed interest in drafting him, but for a variety of reasons- it didn’t come together. He could have snubbed the team in turn as they did him in 2011, and gone with someone like Carolina, or Philly or perhaps even his hometown Detroit Red Wings. Ultimately, though, he chose a harder path with Boston, a team less than one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup and one of the NHL’s top tier clubs (though they would get upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Braden Holtby-led upstart Washington Capitals later that spring). Krug knew he could have signed with another team and had an easier, probably faster route to the NHL, but he instead embraced the challenge of signing with the B’s, a team that was the only club that made any kind of effort to talk to him when he was still draft eligible. Not forgetting the first team he “danced” with speaks to his personal character in the decision process. The best path, indeed, is the hardest earned.

Of course, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention that the Bruins had to pay a lot to secure him as a free agent, including burning a year off of his 3-year ELC for just a couple of regular season games to finish out the 2011-12 NHL season, but them’s the breaks. Had they drafted him in the first place, it would have been much less costly- they knew that going in, but to Boston’s credit, they went the extra mile to get their man.

There is so much to stake.
I’ll stumble I’ll loose my place.
Pride and arrogance surrounded by sin.
Destiny takes its hold.
Fight it or let it go.
But I choose how the day will end.

Again, these lyrics emulate Krug. Think back to the contracts he signed before the one in June 2016. He became an RFA after the 2014 season and inked a team-friendly deal in September 2014 to the tune of $1.4M.  Then, he took another budget one-year pact at $3.4M in March 2015 rather than put the team over the barrel and force a longer extension. That was a risk for Krug- had anything serious occurred to him in terms of a major injury, he might have jeopardized his future earnings, but he worked it out with the Bruins to be taken care of later. This becomes especially interesting with the shoulder injury and how it hindered his ability to shoot the puck- is anyone really surprised that he only scored four goals last season? At the same time, had he tallied his normal 12-15 goals in a season, the B’s would’ve been on the hook for more on his four-year extension. Despite the frustration of cratering down the stretch and missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season thanks in large part to a mediocre supporting cast (surrounded by sin?), Krug demonstrated that loyalty is a two-way street.

Destiny took its hold- he’s been rewarded with term and security, with an opportunity to raise the bar even higher in a four-year period as he could very well emerge as Boston’s signature player and a major leader on this Bruins blue line. Sure, he’ll always be limited to a degree by the lack of ideal NHL size, but if you’re going to point to that as a guaranteed limiting factor to his ultimate success, then you’ve probably not been paying enough attention to him at every level of his young hockey career. Krug understands where you’re coming from, and truth be told- folks like you are what have helped to keep that inner fire burning inside him over the years. If he could respond, he’d likely invite you to keep doubting, to keep tweeting about how he “can’t” play defense. As the poet Cliff Poncier once said- whatever tears us down only makes us stronger (or words to that effect. If you don’t know who Cliff Poncier is, then I invite you to check out the 1992 Cameron Crowe film “Singles” and all your questions will be answered. You’re welcome and also- Touch me, I’m Dick.)

And once more- the chorus:

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull…become the bull!

The most unsettling of times: not a great deal is expected of the Boston Bruins with the defense as currently constructed. Help is on the way with some of their impressive young prospects, led by BU sophomore Charlie McAvoy, but this year is what matters, and Krug is going to be key. Sure- we might see Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk or Rob O’Gara make the jump and get some playing time. Perhaps Colin “Chiller” Miller will step up and become a far more impactful defender on both sides of the ice than he was a season ago. We’ll see. However, if this defense is going to perform beyond expectations, it likely starts and ends with Krug.

Forget becoming…he’s now the bull. And if you know anything about Krug and his family- he’s embracing that with the typical “bring it on” mantra that has seen him overcome the odds to not only reach the NHL but become one of Boston’s most respected and dependable players.

Here’s the video with lyrics posted to YouTube by “MH Spirit”:

 

 

 

Final Buzzer: Caps end Boston’s road streak in 4-1 victory

The Washington Capitals lately the nemesis of the Boston Bruins thanks in large part to the stellar play of goaltender Braden Holtby, gave the Black and Gold their first road loss of the season at the Verizon Center Thursday thanks to goals from Alex Ovechkin, Brooks LaichJohn Carlson and Karl Alzner (empty net).

Boston opened scoring in the first period, breaking up Holtby’s shutout streak against the Bruins of nearly 200 minutes when Jimmy Hayes drove hard to the net and banged in Brett Connolly’s shot/pass to the front of the net at 12:47. Defenseman Colin Miller got the secondary assist on the play, adding to his five-game point streak (goal, 4 assists).

The lead did not last, as a Kevan Miller turnover saw the puck end up on Ovechkin’s stick, who fought through traffic to get a shot into the net past Tuukka Rask.

Laich gave the Caps a lead they would not relinquish, as he deflected a Dmitry Orlov point shot down and past Rask just as Bruins defender Joe Morrow arrived to knock him down.

Boston came unglued in the second period, as Hayes took a needless neutral zone slashing penalty, and while Boston’s NHL-worst penalty killing unit was on the ice, Brad Marchand got into a physical battle with the Caps’ TJ Oshie in front of the B’s net. Both players went down, but as Marchand got up, he rabbit-punched Oshie in the back of the head. End result, a 5-on-3 power play for 1:18 that the Caps cashed in on.

With Nicklas Backstrom holding the puck on the right side of the Boston net just behind the goal line and K. Miller down on his knees and out of position, Backstrom slipped a pass to Carlson as he snuck in past the slot penalty killer and fired a shot home to give the home team a decisive lead.

In a mostly scoreless third period, with both Rask and Holtby trading quality saves, Alzner scored into the empty net to finish out the offense on the night in a 4-1 game.

Tyler Randell got back into the Boston lineup for this one and had his first NHL fight against Caps forward Michael Latta, a rival from their OHL days. It was a pretty even bout, with Randell getting the edge in punches landed and the takedown, but Latta got a couple of hard rights in to make it a no decision.

For the Bruins, a tough week that began with the home loss to Dallas was made a little tougher by having to face a goaltender that has essentially owned them in his career. With just 1 goal given up in 246:43, and four consecutive wins against the Bruins, Holtby’s mojo persists.

Colin "Chiller" Miller has arrived in Boston- a keeper. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Colin “Chiller” Miller has arrived in Boston- a keeper. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

UP-

Colin Miller- It’s hard not to like what “Chiller” is bringing to the table. He’s scoring points and carrying the puck with confidence, as evidenced by a third period rush, when he skated through three Capitals in the neutral zone, gained the offensive blue line and then put a low shot that Holtby had to squeeze the pads together quickly to stop. As with any defenseman in their first NHL season, there are things to work on, mainly in his defensive coverage and decisions with the puck at times, as he will make higher-risk passes or skate the puck into danger zones when there are better options. But overall, the former Kings prospect has come exactly as advertised and his tangible production and impact- six points in his first 12 big league games- are probably better than anticipated. He’s a keeper.

Braden Holtby- He’s a workhorse, All-Star and he absolutely has Boston’s number. In his last four starts against the Bruins, he posted games with 29, 32, 27 saves- all shutouts, then stopped all but one of Boston’s 28 shots in this one. As someone who used to live in the D.C. area when Holtby was coming up through Washington’s system after a standout WHL career with the Saskatoon Blades, I was always far more impressed with him than I was with the other higher-touted goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. When Holtby showed up in April of 2012 to beat the defending Stanley Cup champs in a seven-game first-round playoff series, some mocked me on Twitter at the time for saying the guy was headed for the upper echelon in the NHL. Not too many would deny him his spot there today. “Holt-beast” indeed.

DOWN-

Brad Marchand- His lack of discipline hurt the team badly, and there’s absolutely no excuse for it. If the team didn’t need him so much, it might have made sense to send him a sterner message. Marchand has always been on the edge, but his selfishness tends to manifest at the worst possible time. I’m sure he’ll take accountability for putting his team in the hole like he did if he’s not on record already doing it, but talk is cheap. At some point, he’s got to wake up and stop taking bad penalties like this. That the referees made a ticky-tack call on Hayes to put the B’s down a man to begin with is not the point- Marchand inexplicably gave a head shot to Oshie in full view of the referee. That kind of stuff is unacceptable, and there are no more passes for Marchand- he’s a veteran enough player to understand that by now.

Boston defense- We knew this group of players would have a rollercoaster season given their relative inexperience with Dennis Seidenberg still out (though getting closer to a return). The youngsters have done well for the most part, but tonight, they were a step behind and not effective at doing the corner work or keeping the front of their net clear. Washington forwards did a nice job of pinballing off of checks and working pucks to the net. This kind of thing is going to happen, and fans will have to understand that, but in a game the B’s had the lead in, it’s a shame to see the kinds of breakdowns on the back end that led to Washington goals. Rask didn’t have a lot of help and deserved a better fate. Morrow and K. Miller in particular had forgettable performances and will need to shake that off going forward.

Here are some postgame notes and quotes compliments of the Washington Capitals media relations team:

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby on slowing down the Bruins…
“[The Bruins] still do one thing really well – that’s getting shots to the front with traffic, and that presence. They’re still really good at that. They have some good D-men that can get the puck on net with wrist shots or what-not and create havoc, and that’s where their toughest plays for us were…I thought we did a good job, especially in the neutral zone – didn’t give them anything really throughout the whole game. We stuck to our game plan, and the power play was huge for us too.”


Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien on how the game got away from the Bruins…

“The first ten minutes were good. I thought once we scored that goal, that’s when I thought we took our foot off the gas and let them get themselves back into the game. Second period was a matter of some real bad penalties that kind of hurts your team and gives them some momentum. Third period we had to claw our way back into it. They’re a good defensive team, and we didn’t get enough shots on net, and we didn’t get enough players in that area as well to be able to score some goals.”

Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien on the effects of the Bruins’ penalties…

“All three penalties – you take a slashing in the neutral zone, you have too many men on the ice when your guy that you’re jumping for [is still on the ice] and the puck is coming – it’s like you’ve got to be smarter than that. So, it’s not just [Brad Marchand]. I thought the second period penalties were real bad penalties on our part.”

 

Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand on playing against Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby…

“He’s a good goalie. I think they have a really good team over there, too. We just have to get a few more bodies out front. He’s one of the really good goalies in this league. We just have to find a way to beat him and just get bodies in front.”

The Bruins get to face Montreal on Saturday, with another game Sunday in Boston against the Islanders. This week isn’t going to get any easier.