There is a bit of Bo Jackson in New York Rangers’ left winger Chris Kreider. He is discussed in hushed disbelief, as though each anecdote could not possibly be true. Did he really beat Sidney Crosby in a foot race? Did he really grow over the summer and add more muscle? Can he actually jump out of a pool and land on his feet? What sane person would fight Dion Phaneuf in his first NHL hockey bout?
Like Bo, Kreider has “superhero” allure because 6’3”, 226-pound wingers are not supposed to be that fast, or strong, or intense in athleticism that they play differently than other left wingers. Kreider pulp is nonfiction, and because of that, he makes for riveting television.
From Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, Kreider was drafted by New York 19th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He had that high-upside, limitless potential that made him irresistible to the Rangers organization. As he further developed at Boston College, he won two NCAA titles. Representing the United States at two separate World Junior Championships, he contributed to a gold medal and a bronze. The mythos of Kreider began to seem more credible as news would be leaked that he was getting taller, faster, and stronger than the previous year. Additionally, he was no longer pronounced merely a talent, but a winner.
At 22, Kreider’s gifts are evident, if not fully formed. He is a crucial part of the Rangers’ top six and, unlike when he was in high school, college, or during his incredible 2012 postseason run with New York, his previous mystique now seems more routine. But just to clarify, Kreider will do one or two things every night that make your jaw drop. Last night, he laid out Brent Seabrook. Seabrook never gets knocked over.
Against Dallas tomorrow, Kreider might steamroll a defenseman like Bo Jackson use to truck linebackers. Or maybe he will eviscerate Tyler Seguin in a foot race for the puck. That is what is so captivating about Kreider: his luminosity transfers to the single-play variety.
And all hypotheticals are in play. Putting together a complete game is something he is working towards but, as in the impressionistic brushwork of a Claude Monet painting, you can still see the outlines of the whole picture. But back to his speed.
Saying Kreider charges the net is incorrect, and he does not sprint either. Instead, he hurtles towards the net – sort of like an asteroid through space. Perhaps that is the thing that is most fascinating about him: he does not dominate, but is very effective hurtling towards the puck through the left lane and using his strength to win one-on-one battles.
Remember how Bo used to swing as hard as he could because he wanted to hit the baseball 600 feet? Well, watch Kreider when he is coming down the left side and winds up for a slap shot. Any fissure in the glass, and the puck could break through and decapitate a bystander.
But that speed – how do you describe it? Sometimes, he most resembles a particle engaged in quantum entanglement, because you can swear he exists in two places simultaneously. Was he not just gliding around the high slot in the Rangers zone? How is he now bearing down on the opposing net?!
One of the most exciting plays in hockey this season is when linemates Rick Nash and Derek Stepan utilize the give-and-go with Kreider. “Pass me the puck,” Stepan and Nash seem to beckon, “and I’ll let you beat everyone with your speed and you can just run a go-route.” Nash and Stepan toss the puck into areas on the ice no one is occupying and Kreider chases after it.
Certain explosive NHL players have a great first step, or first few strides that trigger their acceleration. With Kreider it seems different. He looks like he begins at 60 mph. There is some vintage Randy Moss to the go-fetch-it experience, because the puck will be in one spot in a couple of seconds and Kreider will get there faster than everyone else.
Then there is the power. Although they had some rocky times together, former coach John Tortorella helped Kreider morph from a speedy, powerful forward to a speedy, powerful forward who plays with a mean streak. Kreider now plays with an edge, and for someone as strong as he is, it can result in some gruesome penalties. The Hulk means well too; all indications are that Kreider is a thoughtful, caring guy who does not want to intentionally injure someone, e.g., Patrick Kaleta. But to continue on the physics trope, when Kreider collides with another player, he finishes upright and the other guy falls over.
Kreider can jump out of a swimming pool and land on his feet – this was already said but it should be reiterated because it is insane — but he cannot leap over tall buildings.
Time to get to some of the quantitative stuff. Independent of his legendary play-to-play brilliance, Kreider fares really, really well on a micro level. His Corsi for percentage and Corsi relative are top three among Rangers forwards and his Fenwick for percentage and Fenwick relative are the best. And astoundingly, his quality of competition is the toughest among Rangers forwards at even strength. This is quantitative supporting the qualitative – numbers supporting the eye test.
His zone starts are not impossibly difficult, like Brian Boyle’s or Dominic Moore’s, but he also does not get the cream puff positioning that Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin are getting. Kreider is by definition a north-south player. Sometimes, it almost looks like he is intentionally sequestered from the play. He has gotten 11 goals and 13 assists so far for a reason. He generates scoring chances by operating in his own orbit. When he skates a straight line, his teammates know they just need to get the puck near him and he will skate it down.
What is overtly charming about Kreider is that, despite being a freak of nature, he looks like a normal kid from the neck up. He did not come from some extraordinary background; he is just a 20-something from Massachusetts who looks like Glen Bishop from Mad Men.
So how will it end? Honestly, it is hard to say. Like Bo Jackson, it seems fated for legends to be deified and then disappoint. This is true because it is more fun to debate the extraordinary than to study the tangible. It is likely that Kreider will have a career on paper as just another power forward who had success in the NHL.
But Kreider is different because he is not just another power forward. The Tao that motivates him seems to be something even he cannot explain. He is different because he is faster and stronger than his contemporaries. And that sure as hell makes him worth watching.