When it comes to the shootout, the Checkers have a new and unlikely hero.
Defenseman Justin Krueger, who after not scoring a conventional goal all season was something of a shock addition to the shootout lineup in December, has now made good on both of his chances. He’s the only player on the roster and the only defenseman in the AHL that has a perfect record in multiple attempts, having helped the Checkers to two shootout wins in their last four games.
One wouldn’t know it from his reaction upon getting the call for the first time against Oklahoma City on Dec. 18 or from his finish, a forehand-to-backhand deke that any of the team’s more recognized offensive players would be proud of (video below), but he was just surprised as anyone else to suddenly become part of the rotation.
“I’ve been ready, but I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen here because we have so many forwards that can score,” said Krueger, who has 5 assists in 28 games this season. “It’s one of those things that every team practices, so every player gets to work on it no matter what his role is.”
From watching Krueger in those practices, coach Jeff Daniels said he an idea that he might call upon his stay-at-home defenseman should the situation arise, but admitted that even he wasn’t sure how it would turn out.
“I told him he was up, and to his credit he stayed calm,” said Daniels of giving Krueger his first opportunity. “He just looked at me, nodded his head, went out and scored a goal.
“It’s one of those decisions that looks good now because it worked, but it could have just as easily gone the other way.”
Krueger’s second attempt didn’t go quite as smoothly as his first, as Rockford goalie Alec Richards partially blocked his shot only to see, or more appropriately not see, the puck take a high bounce and land in the goal crease before slowly crossing the goal line.
“It was the longest few seconds I’ve ever seen in the shootout,” said Krueger. “I didn’t want to do anything or say anything to let the goalie know that it was still trickling in behind him.”
If that seems like a veteran move for a first-year player, it’s because Krueger is a little of both. Though he’s the fourth-oldest player on the Checkers’ current roster at 25, he still qualifies as one of its five rookies under AHL rules despite playing one year of professional hockey in Switzerland last season. His play this season has also reflected the dichotomy, as he went through an adjustment period early, sitting out five games as a healthy scratch, before rounding into one of the team’s more reliable defenders of late.
“He’s made huge strides,” said Daniels. “At the start of the year he wasn’t playing all the time, but the message all along was to be patient.”
Part of the adjustment for Krueger, the Carolina Hurricanes’ seventh-round draft choice in 2006, was due to repeated transitions between North American ice surfaces and the larger variety in Europe. He began playing on the latter while growing up in his native Germany and Austria, moved to the smaller size in Canadian juniors and at Cornell University, then went to Switzerland and back after one season.
If that’s difficult to keep track of, consider its implications on a young player still developing his game. Though it may have made things more difficult to start this season, Krueger feels like he’s now better for it.
“It widens your horizons,” he said. “You have to do things differently on the different ice surfaces, but I’m at a point now where I’m used to playing on both. It’s a whole different game though, that’s for sure.”
Asked to describe the differences between the Swiss league and the AHL, Krueger said there were too many to list. However, the fundamental challenge seemed to be adapting to the pace of the game in the AHL, but even that couldn’t necessarily be defined as faster or slower.
“Here, as soon as you touch the puck, you’re getting hit,” said Krueger, who played 50 games with SC Bern last season. “The Swiss league is actually a little faster because of the ice surface, but you have more time to handle it.”
Making that adjustment, just as he’s had to do at all of the various stops in his hockey career, is what’s caused Krueger to settle into a role as one of the top penalty killers on a team that ranks seventh in the AHL and has killed 21 consecutive opportunities over its last six games. That, along with his play at even strength (he ranks first among team defensemen in plus/minus at +4), will be what leads him to be a successful pro.
Still, that whole shootout thing has been nice too.
“I’m happy to contribute in ways other than my defensive game,” he said.