Chris Kreider is 22 years old, has yet to play a full season in the NHL, and his professional career has already come full-circle.
The gifted winger made his NHL debut two seasons ago, storming onto the scene for the Rangers in the midst of the 2012 playoffs and potting five goals in 17 games. It was then that former Rangers coach John Tortorella resolved to “stay out of his way”, trusting the 20-year-old’s instincts on the ice.
But over the next year, Tortorella did just the opposite. Kreider was called up and sent down last season as if riding a seesaw, his footing never firm even when his play was. He was toyed with like a rabbit in the lab, his coach giving him big minutes one night and then benching him the next.
Kreider claims to have learned a lot from Tortorella, and we’ll take his word for that. But it’s hard to imagine that his most valuable takeaway wasn’t learning how to find his way from New York City to Hartford. By the time Glen Sather had shown Tortorella to the door last spring, Kreider had turned from a sure thing into an enigma.
When he was cut from the team out of training camp this season, the disappointment mounted. His future seemed to be slipping through his team’s fingers, the organization’s big investment spiraling down the drain.
And it was hard not to think back to Tortorella, who seemed to have stunted the kid’s growth with erratic decisions and mixed messages. The result was a confident forward playing tentatively, unsure of his role and unsure of his stability.
But Kreider played well enough in Hartford this fall to earn another stint with the Blueshirts. And Alain Vigneault, Tortorella’s replacement, has let the kid loose, doing exactly what Tortorella himself vowed to do: stay out of his way. The result now is a confident forward playing aggressively, his game moving north-south rather than east-west.
Saturday afternoon at The Garden, Kreider got a chance to show his old coach just how much he’s grown. And like his opportunity with the Rangers this October, he certainly made the most of it.
Against Tortorella’s Canucks, Kreider scored twice in the first and then once more in the third for his first career NHL hat trick. He’s a soft-spoken kid, not inclined to revel in the justice of the day, so the crowd took care of it for him. Through the second and the third, the cheers were frisky: “That’s-for-you-Torts!!”
It was ironic, only because Tortorella was the first to give Kreider a shot in the NHL. And after pushing his career to the ropes, he watched helplessly as Kreider picked his new team apart.
If it’s any consolation for Tortorella (and it isn’t), the Canucks aren’t the first to feel the sting of Kreider’s bite. In the 20 games he has played thus far, Kreider has six goals and 16 points, while playing alongside some of the team’s best players. And unlike last season, when he seemed to defer to the guys around him, Kreider has played with his linemates rather than next to them.
An easy way to explain his turnaround? He’s simply more involved. Kreider has thrust himself into the action when given the chance, and thus the chances have grown. If 16 points attest to his talent, 14 penalty minutes speak to his assertiveness. Kreider, for the first time in his career, is playing with some snarl.
Finally, all at once, his gifts have materialized. He is using his speed to back up opponents. He is using his wrist shot – and what a wicked wrist shot it is – to fire rubber on goal from just about anywhere on the ice. He is using his strength to win one-on-one battles. And he’s using his size to stand up for his teammates.
It all goes back to confidence, which Kreider, for the first time in a year and a half, seems to have in high supply. And that can be credited to Vigneault, who has helped Kreider believe in himself simply by letting him play.
He’ll continue to unleash his big forward, who looks ready to begin his career in earnest for the second time. He’s back where he started, 19 months ago, but this time the reins are off.
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