After two seasons with the Checkers, Justin Krueger is going back to where he started.

The 26-year-old defenseman became the second member of Charlotte’s defensive corps to sign a contract with a European club this week by agreeing to a two-year deal with Bern of the Swiss league on Thursday. Prior to making his North American debut with the Checkers, Krueger played his first professional season with Bern in 2010-11.

Earlier this week, fellow veteran blueliner Marc-Andre Gragnani joined Lev, a Czech-based team in the predominantly-Russian KHL. Unlike Gragnani, who was set to be an unrestricted free agent free to sign with another NHL club, Krueger is restricted, meaning that the Carolina Hurricanes can retain his NHL rights by presenting him with a qualifying offer.

For Krueger, a veteran, stay-at-home defenseman on last season’s Checkers team, the decision came down to a comfort level with his former club and his lack of NHL opportunities over the last two seasons.

“My goal was to get a taste and a shot at the NHL, like everyone’s dream is, and after two years I didn’t get a chance, so my decision was to take another road,” said Krueger, who also considered offers in his native Germany, Sweden and from other Swiss clubs. “This step makes me able to play in a good league that is getting more popular in the world.”

While acknowledging that NHL chances during his first year in North America, one that included a handful of games missed to injury, weren’t quite as realistic, Krueger said that he was hoping for more this past season.

Justin Krueger
“There were times when you think you’re close and then you’re not,” he said. “The lockout was tough because there’s no NHL and you have no chance, but when it ended there were a lot of injuries and I thought I might get a chance. You move on and keep hoping, and then suddenly the season is over and it’s been two years and you didn’t get a chance.”

Krueger, originally the Hurricanes’ seventh-round draft choice in 2006, said that he had not had much contact with Carolina since the end of the season and that the choice to go overseas was his own, one that he feels is best for what he still hopes will be an NHL career.

“I’ve seen that playing in the AHL is not the only way to get to the NHL, and I’ve seen other players make that step,” said Krueger, citing current New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit as someone who started in Switzerland, crossed over to the AHL and went back to Switzerland before coming a full-time NHL player at age 28. “I’m not losing my dream to play in the NHL by doing this. I’m just deciding to make a different step.”

By returning to Europe, Krueger hopes to keep working on specific facets of his game. In particular, he feels that the international game, made faster by the larger ice surface, can help him achieve his goal of becoming a faster player. Being based in Europe will also allow him to play a larger role on the German national team, taking part in three mini-camps spread throughout the season that he had missed while in North America, even though he still made his country’s team for each of the last four World Championships.

Krueger is also a big believer in the Swiss league, pointing to the country’s silver-medal finish in the World Championship just last week.

“I find it to be one of the best in the world if you consider all circumstances,” said Krueger, whose father Ralph, currently the Edmonton Oilers’ head coach, coached the Swiss national team for several years. “It’s gotten so much better in the last 10 or 15 years.”

Upon parting, Krueger made sure to thank the Checkers organization and its fans for the last two seasons, ones he’ll use as a learning experience moving forward. Given the differences between the North American and European games, he hopes that having experience and exposure in both areas will help him moving forward.

“By being in North America for two years I put myself on the map and now people know I can play in North America,” he said. “Coming from Europe, you learn North American hockey and how it’s played, because if you haven’t been here you have no idea. Now I know how it’s played and have things I in mind to keep working on.

 “If I play well in the Swiss league, I’m hoping that will give me a different shot to try to make the NHL.”

Krueger and Gragnani were two of the most experienced members of last season’s Checkers defense, one that now seems to be trending in a younger direction with Hurricanes prospects Danny Biega, Keegan Lowe and Ryan Murphy among those set to play their first full professional seasons. With Brett Bellemore and Michal Jordan still restricted free agents, Rasmus Rissanen is, excluding Justin Faulk, the only defensemen who started this past season in Charlotte that is under contract for next season.

Krueger recorded AHL career highs in games played (69), assists (14) and points (15) last season and tied for second among team defensemen in playoff scoring with two assists during the five-game series with Oklahoma City. He led the team with a plus-16 rating in his rookie season and was also known as something of a “secret weapon” in the shootout, where he scored exactly the same amount of goals (3) as he did in actual games during his Checkers tenure.
Paul Branecky
Author: Paul BraneckyEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The Checkers' vice president of communications, Paul Branecky has been covering hockey in North Carolina since 2006, including five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.