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In the continuing search to improve the Winnipeg Jets’ blueline, we’ve gone through what the retention of Dylan DeMelo or the addition of Tyson Barrie might mean for the NHL club. But how about the addition of a bona fide star, instead?
Not that DeMelo and Barrie wouldn’t be significant contributors; all signs point to them as solid fits if the Jets could lure them during the free-agency signing period next month.
But what if Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made a big splash in free agency and inked the top defenceman available on the market? That's assuming Alex Pietrangelo isn't "the one," since the St. Louis Blues have moved out salary specifically to get him signed to a new contract.
There's growing chatter that the Boston Bruins won't meet the contract demands of Torey Krug, 29, as the perennial 50-point defenceman eyes a big payday after finishing up a four-year contract that averages US$5.25 million per year.
Krug, 5-9 and 185 pounds, is a very interesting player, providing an ton of offence through his strong puck-moving ability at even-strength, and taking full advantage of his shifty playmaking as a power-play quarterback.
The seven-year NHL veteran (all with Boston) has quick feet, a smart stick and a deceptive shot that combine to make him a pint-sized powerhouse from the back end. But does he provide strength to areas the Jets are weakest? Let’s break down his play in the same way we did for Dylan DeMelo and Tyson Barrie to find out.
Krug turns the puck over slightly more often than both Barrie and DeMelo in the defensive zone but is an improvement over the average Winnipeg blue-liner. Yet, his neutral-zone puck management is only a hair above par.
The former star at Michigan State is similar to DeMelo at turning puck dump-ins into controlled exits, and blows both of the aforementioned D-men out of the water in controlled exit success rate. Despite the fact the Bruins are only about average at successfully exiting their defensive zone, Krug succeeded in that endeavour a whopping 82.4 per cent of the time during the interrupted 2019-20 season.
Like Barrie and DeMelo, Krug rarely struggled to make simple plays and reset in his own zone with a quick defenceman-to-defenceman pass. His puck management in the defensive zone and his ability to exit is exemplary, just the kind of player Winnipeg could use to get its transition game going.
In addition to his zone exit-efficiency, Krug is at DeMelo's level in successful stretch passes per 20 minutes, and it's a safe wager his passes are more effective at setting up rushes, considering his offensive acumen.
The Bruins enjoyed the fruits of Krug’s labour, giving up fewer quality plays while he was on the ice. He ranks extremely well compared to his teammates and other NHL defenders in preventing inner-slot shots and slot passes against, marks of a strong contributor on the back end.
That's in contrast to Krug’s reputation as an offensive defenceman who needs to be sheltered in order to be successful, but I think that reputation comes from a misunderstanding of how Boston approaches Krug’s minutes.
The Bruins have the luxury of running Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara against opponents’ top lines, which allows them to shield Krug from other teams' top offensive players — to an extent. It's possible to shelter a forward much more effectively than a defenceman; in fact, metrics show it's difficult to shelter even a third-pairing defenceman during the regular season.
Krug does play softer minutes than many of his peers among top-four defencemen, but not by as much as you might think. When he does play against top lines, inevitable at times, he doesn’t struggle.
Krug’s performance relative to his teammates is so strong, if he is forced to play against tougher competition, I don’t think I’d be worried if I was Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, as he searches the market.
Krug has exerted such strong control over the flow of play for so long, and that control persists even when he isn’t being sheltered. However, the one worry I have if Krug joined a team that didn’t have the defensive depth to shelter him significantly is that he might produce less offence. And at 29, that's a distinct possibility as most players trend downwards offensively as they age into their 30s.
It looks great on paper for a D-man to post 50-point seasons on a consistent basis. But the way the game is trending, a more crucial contribution for a defencemen to make to a team's offence is to enable their forwards to make better plays. That comes from transitioning the puck forward, holding the blue line and making plays to keep the puck moving east-west and down low.
Krug has the skating and instincts to jump in and be a direct offensive contributor as well, but his true value will come from how well he keeps the puck in the right areas of the ice, and that's not an area he’s losing a step in.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
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