Phillip Danault first had the talk with Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and then with Rockford IceHogs coach Ted Dent. The messages were the same.
“They told me they want me to be a Kruger,” Danault said at last week’s prospect camp. “So I’ll try to mold myself after Marcus Kruger.”
The 21-year-old center played his first full season with the IceHogs in 2013-14, recording six goals, 20 assists and a plus-11 rating in 72 games. He obviously wants to build off that in the hopes of hitting the next level. And if Danault eventually wants to be a consistent NHL player, he has to become a well-rounded player much like Kruger has with the Blackhawks.
“Not everyone can be the goal scorer,” said Dent in a phone interview on Tuesday. “He was a big scorer in juniors. But the way he plays in the AHL, it was more of a third or fourth-line center, more of a shutdown center. It took some time for him to adapt to that, play in that role and not be relied upon for offense. He’ll try to fine-tune his game to be the best defensive forward he could be.”
It’s certainly worked for Kruger. Two seasons ago, the Swedish center found his niche as part of the Blackhawks’ stingy penalty killing, a role that was new to him before coach Joel Quenneville tried him there. Last season, Kruger, working with development coach Yanic Perreault, vastly improved his faceoff work; he finished seventh overall in NHL with a 56.7 faceoff percentage.
Danault started working toward that with the IceHogs last season, albeit with some bumps in the road.
“Defensive play’s been very good. We had a bad penalty kill at the beginning but at the end we did a great job,” said Danault. “For me, that’s very important. It’s a big part of my game. My faceoffs are, too. They’re a huge part of my hockey sense.”
Dent said Danault understands the need to hone his entire game. At the same time, Dent doesn’t want to dissuade Danault from scoring if the opportunity is there.
“He has some offense for sure. He drives the net hard and gets into the hard areas and protects the puck. He’ll definitely get his offense because of that. He’s tenacious on the forecheck as well,” Dent said. “But to get to the next level, it’s going to be (in) more of a shut-down type of role, (being) real good on faceoffs. Penalty killing would be one of those areas he needs to be good at, and also being able to play against the other team’s top players.”
Danault faces the same challenge most of the Blackhawks’ prospects face: cracking the Blackhawks’ lineup. It’s deep and, right now, he’s on the outside looking in. Until then, Danault said he’ll “keep working hard and do what you can do during the summer and winter. I have to do whatever possible to be ready for (training) camp.”
And when Danault does get his shot with the Blackhawks, he knows the type of player he needs to be.
“He embraces that role,” Dent said of Danault. “Everyone loves to score goals. But the guys that defend well and keep the puck out of our net are just as important. They just don’t get the recognition. Marcus Kruger was a guy he was told to emulate and watch. And maybe down the road, he could play in the NHL in a similar way that Marcus does.”