In Kreider, Rangers made right choice
Deemed a 'special player' by Blueshirts, standout rookie is paying early dividends
In the days leading up to the 2009 NHL draft, the New York Rangers' brass huddled inside a room at Montreal's Le Crystal Hotel as they deliberated over a handful of players worthy of their first-round pick. The final discussion hinged on whether to use the selection to draft a forward, prep school standout Chris Kreider, or a defenseman, Swedish blueliner Tim Erixon.
In those internal discussions, there was initial reluctance to take Kreider. The promising young player possessed unquestionable speed and skill, but he wasn't coming up through the well-combed junior hockey system. A player who dominated at even the most elite prep school program could be difficult to project.
"We had this guy who was lightning-fast and strong as an ox, but he was playing against lower-level teams," said Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark.
Ultimately, that wasn't enough to dissuade the Rangers' scouting staff, and good thing.
Deeming Kreider a "special player," the team selected the Boxford, Mass., native 19th overall. The choice was the right one. The Rangers eventually acquired Erixon in a 2011 trade with Calgary -- he has since emerged as one of the team's top defensive prospects -- and tapped into a tremendous talent in Kreider.
Since inking a three-year, entry-level contract just days after winning a national championship at Boston College and a mere 48 hours before the NHL playoffs began, 21-year-old Kreider has flourished as a potent offensive threat for the top-seeded Rangers at the most opportune time.
Kreider has commanded the back pages of New York City tabloids and captivated the attention of the league with his staggering transition to the NHL. Since making his professional debut in a nerve-rattling Game 3 against the Senators at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place on April 16, Kreider has tallied two game-winning goals for the Rangers, the latter of which had the crowd at Madison Square Garden chanting his name in Game 1 of the conference semifinals.
"It wasn't a moment I ever dreamed of," Kreider said. "But it was still pretty surreal."
Humble and unassuming off the ice, Kreider has been tenacious in attacking his opportunity on it. Unfazed by the daunting transition from college to the pros, he has dazzled with his speed, playmaking ability and superior hockey intelligence.
He has ascended so quickly since joining the team that coach John Tortorella has shown no hesitation in using him in key situations -- the coach even deployed the winger in Game 7 against Ottawa on Saturday with the Rangers leading 2-1 and less than a minute remaining in the series finale.
Said Tortorella: "He has the mental makeup that not too much bothers him."
Speculation surfaced throughout Kreider's junior season at Boston College that he might leave the program to begin his professional career. Once he led his Eagles squad to the team's second national title in three years at the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., on April 7, the stage was set.
With the Rangers on the cusp of the first round of the playoffs, Clark and Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton had an important conversation about the team's needs.
Although outsiders wondered whether signing the can't-miss prospect was the right move (Could he adapt to the NHL level of play in such a short time? Might he jeopardize the strong team chemistry forged during the Rangers' successful regular season run?), the decision was not a difficult one.
"We really believed we were going to need him in this playoffs. It's a war of attrition," Clark said of the organization's attitude. "If somebody in this group gets hurt, we think Chris is going to be the next guy."
"That was good enough for [general manager Glen Sather] and good enough for Torts," Clark said.
Thrust into a difficult situation, the precocious Kreider handled the transition with grace. Quick to dispel any notions of entitlement, the newbie vowed to "earn" whatever ice time he could.
The first time he was confronted with the sizable media contingent that waited around his stall at Madison Square Garden, he asked whether he could conduct interviews outside the dressing room. Out of respect to the players actually suiting up for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals -- Kreider was scratched until Game 3, when Carl Hagelin sat out the first of a three-game suspension -- he did not want to cause a distraction or give the impression that he deserved such attention.
"He's not a young man that gets his head full of a lot of things. He's extremely well grounded," said Dean Boylan, who coached Kreider at Phillips Academy Andover. "As good a hockey player as he is, he's every bit as good or better off the ice."
That maturity and respect has made an impression on teammates and coaches at every level.
He has consistently risen to the occasion in the big games (Kreider has also excelled on the international stage, playing for the U.S. team in the 2010 World Championships and winning Gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships that same year) but is the first to talk up his teammates or deflect attention elsewhere. It's a function of the well-rounded upbringing fostered by parents David and Kathy Kreider.
"He's a humble kid and his parents have done a terrific job in raising him," said Boston College coach Jerry York. "He enjoys being part of a team. He knows it's not golf or tennis. He understands how important teammates are. He'll watch and observe to see how others handle things."
If Kreider's first inclination was to hang back and watch how his veteran teammates handled themselves, he has since become emboldened to solicit their advice.
"Before I kind of wanted to keep my mouth shut and hopefully I could pick up what was going on without asking questions," he said before letting out a sheepish laugh. "I'm a little more comfortable now. I probably ask too many questions."
That comfort level with his teammates has translated to his performance on the ice as well, and it could not have come at a better time. After the team lost speedy rookie Hagelin (three-game suspension) and integral checking-line center Brian Boyle (concussion) in the first round, Kreider seized the opportunity to make an impact.
"He has no fear. That's what I like about him," Tortorella said about him after a recent game. "The biggest thing is his mindset. He's not here to test the waters. He's here to make a difference."
And as Richards predicted after Kreider earned the famed Broadway hat with his first multipoint performance on Saturday, "You're going to see a little more Chris Kreider now."
The Rangers can only hope.