May 10, 2012 12:10 PM
In North America, the IIHF World Championship tournament is sometimes viewed as a consolation prize for established NHL players who have missed their chance at the Stanley Cup. For Justin Krueger, it’s something else.
As a member of a German national team that can’t claim the same level of star power as most of its opponents, the Checkers defenseman has received the uncommon opportunity to go up against some of the world’s best players while still in the developmental stage of his career. Now playing in his third consecutive tournament, he needs to look no further than his first event when asked about his most eye-opening moment.
“One experience was really special,” he recalled of a semifinal game against Russia in 2010. “It was one of my first games in my first tournament when I stepped out for the penalty kill. I faced one of the most dangerous power plays I've ever seen: Sergei Gonchar, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.”
Two years later, any NHL team would still drool over that having that combination at their disposal or sweat at the challenge of having to defend against it. Needless to say, it’s not the kind of assignment typically handed to a 23-year-old fresh out of college with no professional experience. However, on this particular date, Krueger helped hold that All-Star unit without a goal on four attempts while playing a total of over 17 minutes in a narrow 2-1 loss.
“I had no choice but to just step my game up to their speed,” he said. “Right away I was able to adjust my foot speed to defend them and then I just learned to move the puck much quicker. Another thing I learned in that first tournament was to become even stronger physically to be able to hit big guys like (Jaromir) Jagr or Ovechkin.”
Adjustment is something Krueger’s had to do his entire life as he’s moved from country to country and continent to continent, having just completed his first professional season in North America, and more specifically, Charlotte. After taking some time to get used to the smaller ice surface compared to Europe (something he’s had to temporarily unlearn for purposes of playing in this tournament), Krueger became one of the Checkers’ best shut-down options as evidenced by his team-best plus-16 rating.
As one of just seven players in this year’s event who spent most of the season in the AHL, Krueger counts his experience at the worlds as a springboard for his recent success.
“That's the special thing about this tournament,” he said. “It gives young players a chance to measure up against the greatest players in the world. Now that I know how it is to play against those players, I can use that experience to my advantage to be a better player.”
With Germany retaining its annual underdog status (it has just one NHL player – Florida’s Marcel Goc – on its roster), Krueger said this year’s goal is to at least make it to the quarterfinals, which it would accomplish by finishing in the top four of its group of eight teams. Having started with a 1-3 record, they’ll be in for a fight heading into their final three games of the group stage against Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic starting Saturday.
Where Krueger ends up after the tournament is still up in the air, as the Carolina Hurricanes’ seventh-round draft pick in 2006 is set to become a restricted free agent. Having spent last season in Switzerland, he’ll likely have the opportunity to return to a European league if he so chooses, but he appears to have a different goal in mind.
“My dream is to play in the NHL, so I will continue to do whatever I can to try and make it,” he said.