Jan. 26, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Ever since he started his college hockey career at Michigan State, Torey Krug has been one of the Spartans' best players.
In fact, for the last two seasons, he's been the best player on the team.
When opposing coaches discuss playing MSU, the first player they mention is Krug, one of the best defensemen in the CCHA and in the nation and one of the best leaders.
For the last two years, he's served as team captain, first as a sophomore and now as a junior.
"He does all the little things that help you become a better player every day,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "He's a good team player, a strong leader and competes hard every day.
"The thing that separates him and gives him a chance to play at the next level is, despite his size, he has the mentality. He's very strong mentally in many regards.''
Krug, one of the smallest defensemen in the game at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, was selected as the CCHA's best offensive defenseman last season, and has picked up this year where he left off. He's a strong skater, great passer, has a hard shot and sees the ice very well.
Krug's in good position to again earn all-league honors and contend for a spot on the NCAA West All-American team and he'll get major consideration as one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's most outstanding player.
Krug, 20, from Livonia, is the highest-scoring defenseman in CCHA play with six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 18 games, and his plus-16 is the best plus-minus mark in the conference. In 26 overall games, Krug has six goals and 18 points to rank second in the CCHA among defenseman and is tied for 11th nationally.
For sure, Krug is in the national spotlight as an elite player and is considered by NHL scouts as one of the top free agents. Just about every game, Krug is watched by dozens of NHL teams, eager to sign the gifted defenseman who, amazingly, went undrafted the last three seasons, mostly due to his size.
Krug has come a long way since was a small. 16-year-old playing midget major hockey for Compuware in the Detroit area. Two years before enrolling at MSU, during the 2007-08 season, Krug admitted he had no NHL dreams and he questioned whether he was good enough to play Division I college hockey.
"During my midget major year, I was kind of on the cusp of breaking down and thinking `I might not be going very far with this.' I was struggling and our team wasn't the winningest team,'' he said. "I hadn't hit my growth spurt and my dad (Kyle) was in my ear that maybe I should go play high school hockey.
"Looking back, he could say that he was just trying to motivate me. I was pretty close to (playing in high school). And that would have been it. But you could say it motivated me to work extra hard.''
Krug finished the season with Compuware and planned to play another year of junior hockey in Detroit. He got an invitation to attend a spring tryout camp with Cedar Rapids of the U.S. Hockey League just to gain experience.
"People would say that growing up, when I played on Belle Tire and HoneyBaked (youth) teams that won all these championships, that I was surrounded by good, smart players like Robbie Czarnik, David Wohlberg and (current Spartan) Greg Wolfe and a couple of guys who later played in the Ontario Hockey League,'' he said. "People said that `Krug will be good one he grows.' But I didn't grow until my sophomore-junior year and even then, not very much.''
Before Krug went to Cedar Rapids, he got a call from another USHL team and it turned out to be a turning point of his career.
The call was from Jeff Blashill, the coach of the Indiana Ice, who wanted Krug to try out for his team.
"He said `I want you to come make this team,''' Krug said. "He told me last season that he created a special teams scrimmage to see how I would fare. I took advantage of the opportunity and made the team. I'll never forget what he did for me.''
Not only did a make the team, Krug's game took off and soon dozens of college coaches were recruiting him, wanting him to come in the next year. That season, Krug had 10 goals and 47 points in 59 games and the Ice went on to win the playoff championship.
As the season went along, Krug had 28 college scholarship offers, including Boston College, Colgate, Cornell, Yale, Nebraska-Omaha and MSU.
"That was the true definition of `whirlwind' and a complete 180 in everything,'' Krug said. "Here I was planning on going to play high school hockey and a few months later, at age 17, I'm playing with 20-year-olds who are going to play in college. And all of a sudden, all these coaches are calling me.
"I thought, and my dad did, too, that I would be a two-year junior player before I went off to college. I was small and still had to develop. But the schools said they wanted me the next year.''
Krug said he grew up wanting to play in Boston -- at Boston College or Harvard. But he wondered whether he'd get a chance to play if it came down to a Boston-area kid or an "import" from Michigan.
But when MSU entered the recruiting fray, Krug said it didn't take long for him to decide where he was headed. "You study what you want in a hockey program and so when MSU offered, they had everything I had dreamed about,'' he said. "I had grown up a MSU fan so it was an easy choice.''
Blashill remains one of Krug's favorite coaches. After Krug joined MSU, Blashill stayed at Indiana for one more season and then took over as Western Michigan coach, guiding the Broncos to the NCAA Tournament last season.
Last summer, Blashill got another offer he couldn't turn down. He left WMU to join the Red Wings as an assistant coach to Mike Babcock.
"I tell everyone that it's because of Jeff Blashill that the Wings are in first place in the Western Conference,'' Krug said with a laugh.
As a Spartan freshman, Krug teamed with standout Jeff Petry, now with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, and learned a lot from the NCAA second team All-American.
Krug was MSU's seventh-leading scorer in 2009-2010 with three goals and 18 assists for 21 points. Petry was third in scoring with four goals and 25 assists for 29 points,
"Jeff Petry was so important for me and my development. He gave me a lot of confidence,'' Krug said. "I fed off him while getting used to the college lifestyle.''
As a sophomore, while serving as MSU's first solo sophomore captain, Krug had 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points. He was voted All-CCHA First Team and was selected as MSU's most valuable player.
Like a lot of small defensemen, including ex-Spartans John-Michael Liles and Mike Weaver, Krug grew up battling the size issue. At just about every level, coaches preferred bigger players. But the game has changed in the last several years and there is room in college and in the NHL for smaller players, if they have a good skillset, are smart and mentally tough.
"Now you hear `size doesn't matter,''' Krug said. "That's kind of been the motto in my head my entire career. If you're a smaller player, you have to bring something different to the table.
"I'm 5-foot-9 and there is a guy 6-2 who can do the same job I can, even I would take the bigger guy. If I'm going to make it at the next level, I have to bring something special. I have to be good offensively, reliable defensively and work harder to get better every day.''
Playing against bigger players is something Krug has been doing ever since he started playing hockey.
"I don't even think about it now. It's something that comes naturally. When you play against bigger guys, you can't go into the corners and be that aggressive. You have to let him make the first move and play off of him, otherwise you'll just bounce off,'' Krug said. "Coming up against a rush, I just try to get a good gap together and be in position.
"I remember last year at Minnesota, Nick Bjugstad (who's 6-5, 204 pounds) was coming in on a 1-on-1 and trying to crash the net. I was able to make a play where I reached around his body with my stick and was able to poke check the puck away.
"You have to pick your battles. That's one thing I have to do better. I'll try to deliver a big hit or take big hits when I shouldn't. There are certain times you can't afford it, to waste energy to hit a guy because later you might be digging for energy, maybe in the last minute.''
In three-and-a-half seasons, Krug has never missed a game because of an injury.
Anastos, while still serving as CCHA commissioner, said he was shocked when he read that Krug was named captain as a sophomore.
"When I read that I thought two things - that he's either a heck of a leader or the team lacks leadership to have a sophomore as captain,'' Anastos said. "That's a lot of responsibility for a young guy among a lot of older guys.
"What I found out was that he is a heck of a leader and that there was a lot of leadership on the team, too.
"Torey's a great kid, he loves to come to the rink and play. And he's doing a nice job of trying to embrace the whole college experience. He's active in the community and with his teammates, he's a high performer in school and he represents his team and this university so well with the media and with others.''
While Krug gets all sorts of accolades for his offensive talents, Anastos is impressed with his desire to eagerly work on his defensive game and his mental toughness.
"He can get himself into trouble if he tries to do too much and forces things to happen that aren't there but I don't see that as a negative trait,'' Anastos said. "He cares about being good defensively. I'd rather have to dial somebody down that somebody up. He cares about being a better leader.
"For Torey to continue to be effective here and to make the jump to the next level, he's going to have to use his hockey intellect, footwork, body position and speed and quickness to his advantage, as opposed to try to play like a bigger guy.''
Many NHL scouts love Krug's competitiveness, his skating ability and offensive skills and expect him to get a good shot to play in the NHL, perhaps as soon as next year or after his senior year.
"He's a terrific skater and one of the best passers you'll find in moving the puck out of the zone,'' said David McNab, the Anaheim Ducks' senior director of hockey operations who is well-known for signing college free agents who turn into productive NHL players. "He's an incredible competitor which shows that he's pretty tough.
"Sure, his size is going to be an issue but it's not as big of a deal because of the way he battles, competes and thinks the game. He doesn't get overwhelmed. If you need him to be a dynamic offensive player, he has the ability to do that. If you need him to play defensive, he can do that, too.''
Other qualities that impress McNab, and probably many other NHL scouts and general managers, are Krug's character and maturity.
"The word `character' is sometimes overused, but in Torey's case it's probably not used enough. How many sophomores in college are captains?'' McNab said. "You can tell he puts a lot of emphasis on becoming an all-around player. He's on the ice a lot and can play any role.
"He's just a really good player in a lot of ways. He's a fabulous guy -- fabulous in a way that's different than others. There are a lot of good guys in the sport but I still go back to him being a captain as a sophomore.
"Here's a 5-foot-9, non-drafted 19-year-old who is captain at major college program filled with older players. That's pretty amazing. He's a humble, nice kid who just loves to play the game and he does it so well.''
BULLDOGS UP NEXT: For the first time in 2012, the Spartans will play games on the road this weekend, and, as usual, they'll have a major impact on the CCHA race. Eighth-place MSU (13-9-4 CCHA, 8-7-3-2 CCHA) visits fifth-place Ferris State (15-8-3, 9-6-3-1) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Ewigleben Ice Arena.
The Bulldogs, two points ahead of the Spartans with 10 games left for each team, are 4-0-2 in January and ranked No. 10/12 in the nation. MSU, 2-0-2 since getting swept by Miami, is ranked No. 16.
Last season, FSU went 3-1 vs. the Spartans with two wins coming by shutouts at Munn Arena.
Over the last five seasons, the series is tied 6-6-2. Going back 10 years, MSU holds a 16-9-3 edge. The Spartans' seniors are 2-5-1 against the Bulldogs over the past three years.
FSU is a team that stresses defense, and has two top-level goaltenders in senior Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte. The Bulldogs average only 2.77 goals in overall play, which ranks seventh in the CCHA, but they allow a league-leading 2.27 goals per game.
The Spartans rank second in the CCHA on offense (3.12) and ninth on defense (2.92). MSU's best quality lately is its penalty killing -- 89.4 percent overall, second in the CCHA and third in the nation and No. 1 in CCHA games (91.5).
MORE STATS: After Mike Merrifield's team-leading 10 goals, three Spartans are tied for second with eight - sophomores Lee Reimer and Greg Wolfe and junior Kevin Walrod. Reimer continues to lead in points with 25 and assists with 17.