- Craig Custance
It wasn't as if Jeff Blashill wasn't familiar with Torey Krug. Blashill saw Krug play some on his midget team in Michigan and had seen him at a Team USA tryout, and was impressed with his skating.
But when it came time to draft the 5-foot-9 defenseman to play for the Indiana Ice before the 2008-09 season, Blashill passed, like every other USHL general manager and coach.
"I guess I didn't have the guts enough because I hadn't seen him enough," Blashill said during a Monday phone conversation. "Size was the reason why he hadn't gotten drafted by a lot of the teams."
But the first phone call Blashill made after that draft was to invite Krug for a tryout.
"Lucky for me, he chose to come," Blashill said.
And when that tryout for the Ice came, Blashill tailored it a bit for Krug. Typically a tryout camp consists mainly of 5-on-5 hockey, but Blashill wanted to see Krug operate on the power play. What Blashill saw cemented Krug's spot on the team.
Krug, a native of Livonia, Mich., had incredible poise with the puck. He was deceptive -- able to look defenders off and hit teammates with backdoor passes. He always made the right play with the puck, and when he shot, it was on net. Blashill also saw a young defenseman who oozed confidence.
"I thought Torey Krug had an amazing combination of self-confidence and swagger with also the ability to listen and real coachability," Blashill said. "Most guys that are real coachable might not have the most self-confidence. And some guys who have lots of self-confidence aren't the easiest to coach. He has both."
So count Blashill among those who are not surprised to see Krug having success in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nobody expected four goals in his first five career playoff games against a New York Rangers team that doesn't leave much room on the ice. But Krug had long ago convinced those who know him best that he can play at any level. And that it can continue in the Eastern Conference finals against the Penguins.
When the Bruins got thin on defense, Krug joined a trio of young defensemen who revealed just how deep an organization GM Peter Chiarelli has assembled in Boston. Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton are providing the depth on defense that championship teams require, with Krug's performance the most eye-popping of them all. Red Wings rookie defenseman Danny DeKeyser played with Krug on their Compuware midget team that must have had a pretty decent defense. When Krug scored his first career playoff goal, DeKeyser sent him the obligatory congratulations text.
Then Krug kept on scoring.
"I said, 'Hey, save a few for your teammates,'" DeKeyser said with a laugh.
DeKeyser played with Krug at Compuware and against him while Krug was playing for Michigan State and DeKeyser was at Western Michigan. They got to know each other well, and it took DeKeyser witnessing about two of Krug's AHL games to realize he was going to be a great pro. The skills that DeKeyser got to know well as a teenager translated just fine to that level, despite Krug's lack of ideal size.
"He's not a big guy. I think a lot of people put that against him growing up, but he's got the skill set. He's a great skater," DeKeyser said. "He's got a head for the game. He knows not to put himself in position where he's going to get rocked."
And one other factor.
"He loves jumping into the play," he said. "He's always been confident."
So can it continue?
Obviously not at this pace, but another former college standout and former Bruins defenseman, Aaron Ward, watched Krug closely while covering Boston's second-round series for TSN. He saw what everyone saw -- a guy who was trying to be a difference-maker. He saw a young defenseman who played to his abilities, with a quick release and a good shot who was willing to be more assertive as his confidence grew. But also one who wasn't putting his team at risk to make it happen.
"He's not being irresponsible in his attack but is definitely very active in the play," Ward said on Monday. "The situation helped him, the fact that it was two [other young defensemen]. They're not the guys standing out. They're not the sore thumb in the D corps."
Ward saw no indication to suggest that Krug's success was a fluke or that he wouldn't be able to maintain a similar level of play against the Penguins.
"It's almost like, he's given you no reason to doubt him," he said. "It's one of the great stories in the playoffs. He's writing his own story, which is fun to watch."
Blashill impressed with Eakins
According to multiple reports, the Vancouver Canucks have asked the Maple Leafs for permission to interview Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins for Vancouver's head-coach vacancy. It's no surprise, considering Eakins is the AHL's hottest NHL coaching candidate since Jon Cooper is now in Tampa Bay.
Eakins has impressed teams inside and outside Toronto with his ability to develop the Maple Leafs' young talent, which was a big reason why the Leafs returned to the playoffs this season. That's one thing you want to see from your AHL coach. But Blashill, whose Grand Rapids Griffins team eliminated the Marlies in the AHL playoffs, was just as impressed with how prepared Eakins had his team to play in the AHL postseason.
"His teams are very organized," Blashill said. "You can clearly tell the team is on the same page. They know how they want to play. They play great within that structure. To have the success he's had, he gets his guys to buy in to the way they want to play and he gets them to play hard."
If Eakins gets that job, Blashill is next in line to become the AHL's best young NHL coach candidate. Especially if he wins a Calder Cup.
Blashill has a USHL championship, was coach of the year when he was at Western Michigan, and has experience as an NHL assistant under Mike Babcock. Blashill's success this spring with Grand Rapids is the latest on a growing resume.