After most practices, you’ll find Chris Kreider at his locker nibbling from a bag of chocolate bits, part of the sweet routine of a young man who has escaped from hockey limbo.
Under former coach John Tortorella, the Boston College star who had a dazzling, five-goal post-season debut in 2012, was critiqued last year for being irresponsible, yanked down and up to the AHL, demoted to the fourth line, scratched for playoff games and generally belittled. “Chris has a lot to learn about the game and a lot to learn about being a pro,” Tortorella said when Kreider was sent down last March, “so this isn’t a shock to me.”
Fast forward to this October, and coach Alain Vigneault’s regime.
Sure, Vigneault called his training camp “average” and the 22-year-old, 6-foot-3 left wing didn’t make the opening night roster. But Kreider, who pushed himself all summer and reported early to camp, didn’t pout, didn’t feel punished, and after his recall on Oct. 20, has flourished. Kreider had two goals and 10 points in his first 11 games and was averaging 17:43 a night, recently on a line with Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. “I think having a short-term memory is a big part of this profession,” he said.
Stepan credits Kreider for pushing the pace of the trio and Vigneault called him “one of our best forwards every game…using his speed, using his size, going to the net hard, making it real tough on the other team’s D. He’s gotta keep doing it, because we need that from him.”
Because Kreider played just 23 regular-season games last season, he is still considered a rookie. With 12 goals and 18 points in 20 games, Sharks forward Thomas Hertl has an outstanding shot at the Calder Trophy, but after Friday’s games, Kreider was just two points out of a tie for second, despite having played seven or eight fewer games than the freshmen ahead of him.
Without a doubt, Kreider, is playing more physical and with a noticeable edge. “You need that (attitude),” he said. “Watching NHL players, even in college, and you start playing against them, you have to get away from being wide-eyed. You respect their abilities but know you can play with them, you can’t put them on a pedestal. You think about how hard you worked over the summer, and not to be arrogant, but you’ve earned the opportunity, it’s not like it’s fallen in your lap.”
Kreider’s numbers should increase with the return of right wing Rick Nash, which is expected this week. And the learning will continue.
“I didn’t need to go a million miles an hour, it’s unrealistic,” Kreider said last week when speaking about playing with veterans such as Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards. “You always work hard, but not just hard instead of working smart; you have to time it, slow your skating down and when you get to the right spot, take off.”