What an excellent week it has been for Chicago Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger. Tuesday, he became one of the ten members of the team that will be traveling to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and on Thursday, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville announced the 23 year old Swede would now be the team’s second line center, replacing veteran Michal Handzus in between scorers Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane.
The move makes sense for multiple reasons, namely the speed and pace the team wants to push consistently, but especially within the top six forwards. Handzus is well past his prime, and while his hockey sense remains intact the team is best served limiting his minutes to checking (fourth line) and penalty killing situations.
For Kruger, it provides a chance for sustainability. Last year he made the most of his opportunity when Dave Bolland went down with injury, but his game was still a bit raw and incomplete. This year, Kruger has transformed into the team’s second best faceoff man at nearly 57 percent. And despite his diminutive size, his skill against the boards should benefit the line immensely.
Kruger is pound-for-pound one of the best against the boards at not only establishing but retaining possession, and it should help the Blackhawks immensely on the second line. Both Versteeg and Kane love the puck on their stick, and both can work a high cycle that proves to be nearly unstoppable. Whilst Handzus simply couldn’t keep up, Kruger has shown a playmaking ability that could be able to.
A name that continues to be mentioned is Brandon Pirri. Pirri is in an awful position as the coaching staff likely wants to make minimal changes while keeping defensive integrity. Yet, in his time alongside Kane this season, the tandem more than quadrupled the production of Kane and Kruger last season.
Despite the team wanting Pirri to get seasoning, he will likely be forced to remain in the AHL this season as Handzus has a no-move clause in his contract and the Blackhawks likely cannot afford to buy him out. Next year, the Blackhawks will likely also use the services of Teuvo Teravainen within the top-six, unless Kruger performs at an immaculate level beginning now.
Between Kruger, Pirri and Handzus, the decision of who deserves to enter the top-six is rather easy for a multitude of reasons. And while Kruger’s numbers may not be eye-popping, his ceiling remains high, and he has done the work to get another long shot alongside Versteeg and Kane, two of the team’s flashiest wingers.
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