“I want to be a bully this season.”
Chris Kreider used that exact phrase when we spoke on several occasions this past offseason and discussed his approach to 2016-17. So far, he has lived up to those words.
It’s only three games into the regular season, but Kreider already has three goals, three assists and six points, stringing together three consecutive two-point outings. He is the first New York Rangers player since Brian Leetch in 1992-93 to record six points in the season’s first three games, and the first Blueshirts forward to do so since Bernie Nicholls and Darren Turcotte in 1990-91.
While the numbers are impressive, it’s the manner in which Kreider is playing at such a consistently dominating level that catches the eye.
I want to be a bully out there. I know what my strengths are, and I need to play to them on a consistent basis all season long. I have to use my size and my speed and my strength; and I need to play a mean game. I’ve done it for stretches in the past, but this year I need to do it every night, every game. I want to be a bully. – Chris Kreider
Playing to His Strengths
Kreider, quite simply, is a freak, physically. He is a remarkably well-conditioned athlete, who stands 6-foot-3, weighs 230 pounds, and can skate much faster than nearly any other player his size. Quite often he is the strongest, fastest, nastiest and most-skilled player on the ice.
When he is at his best, Kreider is like a runaway train barreling down the tracks at top speed, or a hurricane that is unleashed in 45-second bursts.
Over the first four years of his NHL career, Kreider showed flashes of the player that could dominate shifts, periods, and entire games, most notably in the postseason when he regularly upped his level of play. There were back-to-back 21-goal seasons the last two years and excellent playoff performances in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
However, he not consistently been the force he needs to be. Extremely thoughtful and intelligent, Kreider is a thinker, and quite often in his career he has suffered from paralysis by analysis. That, and perhaps inexperience, were factors in his inconsistent play.
This year, Kreider seems to be in a different frame of mind, which has not only been the case through the first three games but from the start of training camp. He quickly found chemistry with new center Mika Zibanejad, embraced coach Alain Vigneault’s aggressive up-tempo style of play, and has played like a man possessed.
Kreider’s fingerprints were all over Monday’s 7-4 victory over the San Jose Sharks at Madison Square Garden. On his very first shift, Kreider set the tone by crashing the Sharks’ zone with speed and bite on the forecheck. He and Zibanejad, along with right wing Rick Nash, created prime scoring chances on their first couple of shifts. Early on Kreider also sprinted from the Sharks goal line all the way back inside his own blueline to break up an odd-man rush.
With Kreider providing the blueprint the other Ranger forwards followed suit, a pattern that has been consistent in each of the first three games, and the Blueshirts swarmed the Sharks much of the rest of the night.
Kreider closed out the second period by running into Sharks defenseman Justin Braun in the corner to disrupt a clearing attempt. He then skated to the net, constantly moving his feet and looking for a deflection or rebound. At the buzzer Kreider jousted with Braun and muscled him aside.
Bully hockey, to go along with another goal and an assist on Nash’s first of the season.
What Sets Kreider Apart
Of all the good things Kreider did Monday night and over the first three games, what will be remembered most is his laser of a shot off the rush from the left circle which beat Martin Jones under the cross bar 10:21 into the second period.
That shot is what will set Kreider apart from other power forwards in the league. Scoring off the rush as he did Monday is almost a lost art form in the National Hockey League, where so many goals today are scored from the “dirty areas” closer to the net.
Kreider is so fast and so strong that when he sprints up the wing like a thoroughbred, opposing defensemen and goaltenders have to immediately worry about him powering to the net. However, he also possesses a wicked shot off the rush which makes him a dual threat when motoring into the offensive zone with the puck. It is what caught my eye when Kreider first joined the team during the 2012 playoffs straight out of Boston College: his ability to gain a step on the defense and snap a wicked shot on net off the rush. It is also part of his arsenal that does not use enough.
Yes, get to the net and into the slot, Chris Kreider. With your size and strength and good hands, you will score often from those areas. But do not forsake that incredible shot off the rush, either.
That all-around skill set, not to mention a more consistent intensity in his play, so far, is what may catapult Kreider to stardom; to be the player Vigneault predicted a year ago when he was on the verge of a breakout 30-goal season; the player the Rangers showed enough faith in to sign him to a four-year contract this past summer.