- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- It had all the markings of the classic tale of a younger brother striving to keep up with his faster, stronger, bigger siblings.
When Adam and Matt Krug's team took a break from hockey practice, the tiny kids swarmed the ice, buzzing around with their mini sticks, clamoring to emulate the skills of their brothers.
Only little Torey Krug was never among them.
"He was in the stands," explained his father, Kyle Krug.
It wasn't because Torey was afraid, or unsure of his skills. He had enough confidence to fill the entire rink. It was because he was watching.
"Watching and learning," Kyle Krug said. "That's when I could sense something different about Torey."
He was, at the time, all of 4 years old.
Watch and learn. Torey Krug has mastered both skills through 22 years of hope and disappointment, of prolific achievements and bitter letdowns, the most crushing of which was the day he sat by the phone, waiting for the call on NHL draft day that never came.
"It has been great motivation," Krug said Friday, shortly before the Boston Bruins departed for Pittsburgh in preparation for Game 1 of their eagerly anticipated Eastern Conference finals series with the Penguins. "I think it has actually helped me."
In one week's time, the diminutive defenseman with startling acceleration and deft moves has transformed himself from an 11th-hour replacement for a depleted defensive corps into an overnight Bruins sensation, a scoring savant who notched four goals in his first five career NHL playoff games. He has astounded his veteran teammates by demonstrating uncommon poise, a fearless approach and a screaming one-timer that even befuddled Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best in the game.
Providence Bruins asisstant coach Kevin Dean said it's no accident No. 47 is gunning for the net despite his short NHL résumé.
"He understands he's got to produce offensively, or defensively they're going to find someone bigger," Dean said. "He's dialed in. He gets it."
Watch and learn. Krug quickly determined that while his speed was a valued asset, if he wanted to play with the big boys, it would be his brain that would have to set him apart. So he studied the tendencies of the stars of the Detroit Red Wings, the favored team in his hometown of Livonia, Mich. While his friends grabbed a bag of chips and plopped on the couch in their Wings jerseys, Krug took mental notes on how Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom positioned themselves on the power play. He watched them move the puck, angle their passes. When they retired, he turned his sights to the skilled maneuvers of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
"What I noticed was they wouldn't even be looking at the guys they were passing to, but they knew exactly where they were on the ice," Krug said. "I wanted to do that."
As he watched, he recognized there was no hesitation, no doubt in any of their split-second decisions. That's how he needed to be when his chance came for a call-up, said his Providence Bruins coach, Bruce "Butch" Cassidy.
"You tell the kids, 'Just go out and play,' but they're always going to be cautious," Cassidy said. "Torey's the one guy who said: 'The hell with it. I'm going to play my game.'"
Krug has garnered so much notice, he has braced himself for the inevitable adjustments the Penguins will toss his way in the Eastern Conference finals.
"But what you haven't seen him do up there yet is fake the shot, then make a seam pass to the open guy," said Cassidy. "That's coming. Pretty soon they'll take away his chance to drill those one-timers, and you're going to see him fake the shot, get everyone looking one way, then lay a beautiful pass on the stick of [Tyler] Seguin or [David] Krejci. He did that very well down here.
"He's got great vision."
The vision is a result of learning to be patient, understanding that when you are "generously" listed as a 5-foot-9 defenseman, you'd better develop some exceptional offensive skills, because while there will always be opportunities for bruising, physical back-line players, the margin of error for smaller defensemen is razor thin.
Those were the conversations Krug had with Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney, an "undersized" defenseman who carved out 15 productive seasons in a Bruins uniform. Sweeney said Krug's instincts to want to make a play outweigh any discussion of his size.
"It's something you grow to appreciate," said Sweeney. "This is a kid who wants the big moments."
And yet, there's no denying his size (or lack thereof) has already cost Krug opportunities.
"It was something that followed him around," conceded Michigan State coach Tom Anastos.
When Anastos arrived at Michigan State, Krug was already a captain as a sophomore, that dream combination of the best player and the hardest worker.
The NHL inquiries began in earnest. Krug was versatile, skilled, well-respected by his teammates and his coaches. All set, right?
Draft day came and went, and there was nothing.
"He was really disappointed when he didn't get drafted," Anastos said. "Clearly the reason was that on a good day, he's a 5-foot-9 defenseman, and how many of them play in the NHL?
"What people missed on Torey Krug was they were so busy measuring him in height, they forget to measure his heart."
The Krugs, from father and mother down to son and brothers, were devastated. Torey had led the Indiana Ice to a USHL championship. He dominated college hockey in one of the country's most prestigious conferences.
"They kept telling us, 'We need to see what he can do in the USHL,'" said Kyle Krug. "Well, he made the all-rookie team there, then it was, 'We need to see what he can do at the collegiate level.' He led Michigan State in just about every category and then what? What else was he supposed to do?"
Watch and learn. What choice did he have? Krug tried to understand the scouts' thinking, but he didn't know what else he could do to prove to the hockey doubters that he deserved a chance.
"It's a childhood dream to hear your name called at the draft," Krug said. "I interviewed with a few teams. They seemed pretty excited, and I was too.
"You're waiting for your name to get called and it doesn't happen and you're crushed, because all these guys you played against are getting picked.
"I'm sitting there, thinking: 'Why am I not getting called? I'm better than this guy, I'm better than that guy.'"
Anastos consoled him by telling him it was a blessing in disguise. In his junior season at MSU, Krug was named CCHA Player of the Year and became only the second player in conference history to be the scoring champion as a defenseman. Now he could choose his own destination as an undrafted free agent.
Krug knew most expected him to go to a franchise that was in dire need so he could play right away, but he had other ideas.
"I wanted to go to a market where winning was a tradition," Krug said. "I knew no matter how long it took, I was going to get to the NHL. I wanted it to be here, in Boston, where they expect to win Stanley Cups."
When Krug first reported to Providence, his coaches were already up to speed on his story. Dean had scouted him previously and admitted: "I won't lie. I wasn't thrilled about his size. But the minute I watched him move the puck, I told our guys, 'He's going to help our team.'"
Cassidy and Dean, both former defensemen, stressed it was imperative for Krug to stay between his player and the net. They told him he needed to learn to block shots more effectively. They wanted his defensive fundamentals to be shored up.
"I struggled a bit down there," Krug said. "I was going into corners, not being aware of body position, trying to fish for pucks. It wasn't acceptable, so they sat me.
"That's when I realized, it's not just my offensive game that will get me to the next level. I got to bear down on defense too."
His teammates grew to appreciate his confidence and his uncanny ability to put the puck on their stick when they least expected it. Someone nicknamed him Kruger, which gave way to Freddy, the star of the horror movie series "Nightmare on Elm Street."
Krug noted his one-timers had lost some of their luster from his days at MSU, so he asked Dean for a little extra ice time before the Friday morning skates on game day.
"When I was at Michigan State my one-timer was great," Krug said. "It was one of my strengths, and it was one of those things I let slip away from me."
Dean studied his mechanics and suggested he transfer his weight forward. The two took to the ice 15 minutes early each Friday and worked on various angles of the one-timer from different spots on the ice.
"He's a very cerebral kid," Dean said. "You tell him something once and he's going to try and use it. I'd say 80 percent of the kids aren't like that. You've got to tell them three or four times. They've got to see it first. Not Torey. He listens, then goes out and tries it."
Krug was hoping for an invitation to Bruins training camp following the lockout, but after he hit a rut in the ice and suffered a high ankle sprain, his game suffered along with it. When the lockout ended, once again he pined for a call that didn't come.
"Not the worst thing," his father said. "At the time his numbers weren't that great. It made him bear down harder."
Krug's number was finally called when the Bruins needed emergency help just before the Rangers series due to injuries to Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden. Krug was an instant success (four goals in five games), so much so that it has prompted questions about why he wasn't brought up sooner.
"He wasn't ready -- not until about a month ago," Dean confirmed. "I kept telling him the experience down here wasn't hurting him. It wasn't like he was rotting away. He learned to play three games in three nights, to play when you aren't feeling great, when the sticks go up and your body is a little bruised.
"Honestly, it wasn't until February or so that we saw the results on the defensive side of things."
Both Dean and Cassidy agree that Krug's offensive dossier is self-made, a result of countless hours of repetition and effort and studying.
"During those Friday morning [sessions], he was shooting for the corners," Dean said. "He's picking the far side, the short side, trying to get it where the goalie has to make a save with his hands.
"I have never coached a first-year player with the kind of thorough understanding he has of 'Shoot when you should shoot, pass when you need to pass.' He understands the urgency of moving the puck. It's been really fun to watch."
Dean, like Cassidy, expects the Penguins to try to eliminate the one-timer from Krug's repertoire.
"I'll be surprised if he has four goals in the next five games," Dean said, "but I won't be terribly surprised if he has four assists in the next five games."
As Krug Mania sweeps the Hub, the Bruins' front office fidgets just a bit, fretting over the inevitable "too much, too soon" adulation that comes with today's saturated media market.
The kid's play will level off. No one should expect him to continue scoring at the torrid pace he exhibited against the Rangers. Krug knows this, and his bosses do too.
"It's going to happen," Sweeney acknowledged. "No one comes on the ice with a magic wand in their hands and makes everything perfect every time out."
Torey Krug knows he won't get any taller, so he hit the weight room last summer to change his body in other ways. He strengthened his quads, his pecs. He changed his diet completely, eliminating sugars and fats and adding extra protein to the mix.
"The difference with him now is he's so strong," said Kyle Krug. "You see him in some of those [NHL] scrums along the boards and you'd think he'd get manhandled, but he's holding his own."
Torey Krug is 22 years old, a small kid with a big stick. He's watched and learned enough.
It's finally his turn to play.
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance