The back teeth on the top and bottom of Peyton Krebs’ mouth felt like they were touching each other.
That’s what the Golden Knights’ top prospect remembers after taking a slap shot to the face four games into his NHL career on May 8. He was more uncomfortable than in pain. He just knew something wasn’t right.
Krebs skated off the ice and didn’t play the rest of the season with a fractured jaw. He had surgery the following day to insert three plates in his face, and his mouth was wired shut for three weeks. He still doesn’t have any feeling in his gums.
Yet, with Knights training camp underway, Krebs has returned undaunted as he seeks to return to the NHL and carve out a role. The 20-year-old forward thinks he’s ready for the big leagues. Cracking a crowded depth chart will be difficult, but Krebs has never let a setback like a devastating injury slow him before.
“If you’re good enough, they’ll make room for you,” Krebs said. “That’s the biggest thing. If they think you’re ready, you’ll play. And if you stay up to start, (or) you don’t, if you get your opportunity show that you’re ready and you’ll play. Obviously, there’s a lot of great players. I’m going to push them to be the best they can, and I expect them to do that for me, too.”
Krebs is familiar with rehabbing an injury and coming back stronger. A day after coming home from the 2019 NHL combine, he was taking part in a skate when another player came in from behind him in the corner and stepped on his Achilles.
Tests revealed his tendon was 95 percent torn. He had surgery, then slid to the Knights at the 17th overall pick. The only silver lining was he got to stay in Las Vegas in the fall while recovering and live with right wing Mark Stone.
“Definitely my Achilles was a terrible thing,” Krebs said. “I wish it never happened. Now looking back, it was definitely a bit of a blessing in disguise where I got to pretty much live the NHL lifestyle for six months.”
Krebs rewarded the Knights for their faith when he returned.
He had a strong season with his junior team — the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice — and earned a spot on the Knights’ expanded postseason roster. He even warmed up a few times during the 2020 playoffs in the Edmonton, Alberta, bubble.
Krebs built on that momentum with a hectic 2020-21 season in which he played four positions — all three forward spots, plus a brief stint on defense for the Ice — for four teams at four levels of hockey. He won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships with Team Canada, appeared in five games for the Silver Knights, returned to Winnipeg to win the WHL’s Player of the Year award and got the call of his dreams from the Knights.
Krebs had just arrived in Las Vegas after his junior season ended when general manager Kelly McCrimmon asked him to meet the team in Arizona. He flew with the Knights to Minnesota and made his NHL debut May 3. He took the customary solo lap before warmups, played 9:05 and got an assist on his fourth shift. He still has the puck and game sheet.
“I wasn’t too nervous because I knew I was ready,” Krebs said. “My first warmup in the NHL bubble, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat that whole day, and I kind of got those nerves out so I could play one day in a full game.”
Krebs was hurt three games later.
It happened during a shift with linemates Chandler Stephenson and Stone. Krebs was given a look at first-line left wing after playing center, his natural position, in his first three NHL games.
Once the shot struck his face, Krebs’ chance at playing in the playoffs vanished. He at least got some welcome news when right wing Ryan Reaves, who was also injured at the time, told him he could live with him while he recovered.
Reaves and his wife, Alanna, made sure Krebs took his medication on time and fed him smoothies and shakes until he was strong enough to do it himself. Reaves said Krebs blended “anything” to keep his weight up, including chicken and sweet potatoes, carrot cake and spaghetti and meat sauce.
“It was wild,” Reaves said. “Good on him, because some of that stuff can’t be fun to eat through a straw. I think he kept himself motivated by really wanting to get back in the lineup.”
Staying with Reaves also helped keep Krebs’ mind off the pain, which he said was 10 times worse than a toothache. He hung out with the couple’s two kids and played the board game Crokinole with Reaves, who claimed he won every game.
Krebs was back on the ice before the wires were out of his mouth. He could do light workouts as long as he breathed through his nose and kept his heart rate down. He was already thinking of his brief experience in the NHL and what he could do to come back better next time.
“From his injury until now again, in three months he’s a different kid,” Silver Knights coach Manny Viveiros said. “Even in that short period of time, he did a great job of getting back into game shape, or almost game shape. You could see that he’s got his body weight back again.”
Coming back better
Krebs has one shot on goal as an NHL player. It’s the one that came off his face.
One of his primary focuses in the offseason was improving his shot to be more of a weapon at the NHL level. It’s one of the few question marks in an otherwise strong scouting report of which he gets high marks for his skating, skill and smarts.
Krebs turned to an expert for help. He asked Knights left wing Max Pacioretty, who has the 10th-most goals in the NHL in the past two seasons, if he could join him for his summer workouts.
Krebs shot pucks every day before heading to Pacioretty’s house for a weightlifting session. Krebs adjusted the curve of his stick during their workouts, because he was using a straighter curve on a relatively short stick that made it hard to generate velocity on his shots.
At one point, they brought out a radar gun so Krebs could see the difference.
“There isn’t much that he doesn’t have, but it’s an area that he definitely improved,” Pacioretty said. “I’m excited to see how he uses it in a game situation.”
One of Krebs’ other focuses was improving his balance because he thought he was knocked around by bigger defensemen in the NHL. His dorsiflexion, the backward bending and contraction of the foot, wasn’t ideal after his Achilles injury, so he worked on making sure he was over his toes while skating. He also adjusted his diet to give himself a schedule for every meal and become dairy- and gluten-free.
All in the hopes of making it back to the NHL and sticking this time.
“With (Krebs), you know what you’re getting,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “The effort’s always there. Just watching here (at training camp), I see he’s more confident. He’s doing things quicker without thinking because he knows the systems. He’s had a year and a handful of games with us of seeing that. He’s really close. He’s going to be pushing a lot of people.”
Ready to go
This training camp marks Krebs’ first real opportunity to open the season on the NHL roster.
His junior eligibility is used up, meaning he will be sticking around Las Vegas either with the Silver Knights or Golden Knights. The NHL club has a crowded depth chart with 13 forwards seemingly opening-day locks, meaning Krebs, who does not require waivers to be sent to the minors, will need to prove he deserves to stay.
He doesn’t seem phased. That makes sense considering all he’s overcome and the attitude he brings to the rink. Pacioretty said Krebs “never complained” about his circumstances and never lost his smile despite how his first NHL call-up ended. Reaves said Krebs’ competitiveness, work ethic and leadership qualities could make him a potential captain one day.
Krebs isn’t thinking that far ahead. He’s back, in arm’s reach of his dream, and willing to do whatever it takes to reach it.
“I do believe I’m ready,” he said. “But, like I said, I’m just going to work my hardest each and every night and have a lot of fun doing it.”
What: NHL preseason, San Jose Sharks at Golden Knights
When: 7 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena
Radio: KKGK (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Peyton Krebs file
Birthplace: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Position: Left wing/center
2021 junior stats: 13 goals, 30 assists in 24 games
2021 AHL stats: one goal, four assists in five games
2021 NHL stats: one assist in four games