January 17, 2012 12:00 PM
There can be some debate as to which Checkers player is the most improved this season, but there’s little doubt that the two finalists come from the same defensive pairing.
Justin Krueger and Rasmus Rissanen have gone from rookies rotating as healthy scratches in October and November to arguably the team’s most consistent duo of late. Though they’ve been steady as can be at even strength and on the penalty kill, they’ve also made recent headlines in more glamorous roles – Krueger in the shootout, Rissanen with his first professional goal to win the game on Sunday.
It’s hard to say which of those offensive outbursts was more surprising. No one was expecting coach Jeff Daniels to tap Krueger on the shoulder in the shootout – the second round, no less – on Dec. 18, but he showed all the poise of a goal-scoring forward in converting his first two attempts despite not yet having an AHL goal to his name. Similarly, Rissanen, though known for his skating ability, isn’t the player one might expect to rush in alone from center ice, beat two defenders and score a winning goal late in the third period.
For Daniels, the rapid overall progress of Rissanen, the younger of the two at just 20 years of age (Krueger is 25), has been most unexpected.
“He’s just a strong player who wins battles and is always engaging in battles,” he said. “His biggest asset has always been his skating, but he’s really come around in other areas as well. He’s been a pleasant, pleasant surprise.”
Those raw attributes stood out as far back as the preseason, but the key for Rissanen was learning how to use them to his advantage once he adapted to the speed of the game at the professional level as compared to the Western Hockey League, where he spent the previous two seasons with the Everett Silvertips.
“I learn more every day,” said Rissanen, a native of Finland who was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the sixth round (178th overall) of the 2009 draft. “(Assistant Coach) Geordie (Kinnear) is a great coach and is always teaching me things.”
What Rissanen has in raw tools that are becoming ever less so as the season progresses, Krueger, his roommate on the road, complements with positional savvy.
“He’s a guy that just plays a simple game and doesn’t try to do too much,” said Daniels of the Cornell University graduate who leads the team with a plus-9 rating. “Sometimes he kind of goes unnoticed during games, and it isn’t until you watch them again that you see all the things he does. He’s always in good position.”
“It’s good for us to play together,” said Rissanen. “We have the same mindset.”
The current partnership between the two started as more of a competition. Whenever fellow freshman Justin Faulk was with the Checkers at the beginning of the season – something that may not be repeated now that he’s logging over 20 minutes per game in the NHL and is headed to the All-Star Game as one of the league’s top rookies – one of the two had to sit out. In what ended up being a mostly even rotation, Krueger sat out five times, Rissanen six.
“It was a little bit tough, but I think it was good for me,” said Rissanen, who did not play for three consecutive games in early November. “It gives you a chance to watch the game and learn from other guys. When you have to compete, it gives you more motivation.”
Daniels often makes the comparison between those two and Michal Jordan, who played just five of the Checkers’ first 12 games as a rookie last year. Toward the end of that season and continuing to this one, Jordan became one of the team’s most dependable blueliners.
“The message that we were trying to get to those guys all along was that we believe in them,” said Daniels.
That was most evident when another temporary arrival from Carolina, Derek Joslin, again gave the team one too many healthy defensemen. Rather than do what had been done earlier in the season and pick one of Krueger and Rissanen to sit out, Daniels instead chose veteran Bobby Sanguinetti – not because Sanguinetti was playing poorly, but because the other two were playing so well.
“It was a really tough decision, but those two didn’t deserve to come out of the lineup,” said Daniels.
If things stay the way they are, it should again be quite some time before a healthy Krueger or Rissanen watches a game from a press box. That’s just based on their defensive play, but anything else they want to contribute – Krueger’s now a mainstay in the shootout and Rissanen may yet add an offensive side to his game based on his skill set – is just fine too.
“The coaches are always telling me to go ahead and join the rush,” said Rissanen. “Why not?”