TORONTO — Chris Kreider looks down at the table and fidgets in his chair.
His arbitration hearing is one sleep away. Surely he’s heard his name tossed out in the occasional trade rumour. The New York Rangers traded away his good friend, Derick Brassard, this week, and put on paper that they only think Kreider is worth $3.2 million a season. A bargaining tactic, to be sure, but a value ill-suited to a crease-crashing power forward who put up two 21-goal seasons before his 25th birthday.
A contractual impasse can cast a bit of a cloud over an unsigned athlete’s precious summer.
So, how do you feel about your arbitration?
“Ambivalent. Excited to get it done with. Not looking forward to the potential stress that it can create,” Kreider says, eyes low. “I think my family’s looking the most forward to getting it over with. Mom’s a bit of a stresser.” A small smile.
His refreshing honesty personalizes the ugly wrench of these money disputes that are just fun fodder for sports fans’ debates.
Dominic Moore, a friend and teammate of Kreider’s, says the 2009 first-round pick is involved in negotiations but wants it resolved. Moore invited Kreider to Smashfest the night before his deadline. Play some ping-pong, hang with friends, maybe distract the mind.
“Chris is a very intelligent, cerebral guy. He likes to read a lot,” Moore says. “He gets a rap for being a bit of a space cadet from his teammates, but he’s not at all. He’s a very smart, thoughtful guy.”
In a perfect world, how much term would you like in New York?
Kreider pauses, then reaches for a perfectly neutral answer from the NHLer’s Media Playbook.
“In a perfect world I would like a term that works well for me and for the team,” he says. His wide grin broadcasts that he knows he’s saying what he should, not what he wants.
The sides were set to meet for their hearing Friday at 9 a.m.
At 9:30 a.m., the Rangers hit send on a press release announcing they had signed Kreider to a contract, thus dodging the nasty bit of business that is arbitration and letting Mom exhale. Four years and $18.5 million.
Kreider’s $4.625-million average annual salary, only a fraction below his arbitration ask, makes his contract slightly cheaper than those of Kyle Palmieri ($4.65 million cap hit), Gustav Nyquist ($4.75 million) and Carl Soderberg ($4.75 million).
The Rangers should look back and consider this a bargain.
In addition to the consistent production (126 points in his last 225 games), the Massachusetts winger brings speed, size and fearlessness. He’s had his slumps, sure, but on any given night his legs can break open a game or his fist might hit your face.
Compliments on the 6-foot-3, 226-pounder flood from his peers.
“He’s fast,” says Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad. “He’s one of the most built players in the NHL. He’s strong and he hits hard. He plays the game at a high pace, which is hard to play against. A physical specimen.”
Says former teammate Brassard: “Chris is physically really gifted. One of the strongest guys I’ve seen. Really good speed, really good shot. Those guys are hard to find. The Rangers are pretty lucky to have a player like him.”
Moore even one-ups them with praise.
“He’s the fastest skater, I think, that’s ever played in the NHL,” Moore says. “He’s so explosive, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Because he’s consistently a threat in the playoffs, New York fans love the guy. One memorably carved his face into his haircut:
In two of the last three springs, Kreider and the thisclose Rangers have been eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champions. (In the other, they lost to the runner-up.) This has left him wondering how to get over the hump.
“I think we got away from the identity we had the last couple of years: playing fast. There was definitely a focus on defence and building from the inside out that we got away from,” Kreider says, thinking back on 2015-16.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Pittsburgh. We ran into a really hot team playing really well at that junction of the season.”
A Round 1 exit gave Kreider a longer off-season than normal. His family planned a two-week holiday in Hawaii and jam-packed the schedule with activities. He liked the busyness of it all. He’d much rather try to improve as a surfer than sit around on a beach and relaxing.
“I’m not very good at sitting still,” he says.