Marcus Kruger got another taste of the second-line center role against the New York Rangers on Wednesday. Coach Joel Quenneville was looking for a spark in a tepid team performance and threw Kruger up there with Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane.
Quenneville liked what he saw. And now, it looks like Kruger will get more than a taste at that spot.
Kruger will practice at second-line center on Friday and will likely play there on Saturday night when the Blackhawks take on the Montreal Canadiens. It’s a promotion for Kruger, who has made great strides in his game in his few years with the team. And there’s no doubt Kruger welcomes the opportunity to take that job.
“If they want me there, I’ll be happy to play there. It’ll be a lot of fun,” said Kruger, who’s been the Blackhawks’ steady fourth-line center this season. “I’ve played there a bit in the past, and I’m familiar with that. But it doesn’t change too much about my game.”
Kruger is getting this chance for several reasons. For one, Quenneville wants to get the lines rolling again. The Blackhawks suffered just their second regulation loss in their last 12 games on Wednesday night, but their recent outings have had their sputtering, struggling moments. But bigger reasons are that Kruger’s developed a great all-around game, he’s done fine on that line before and he’s earned the opportunity.
“He’s had a couple looks as we’ve gone along the last couple of years, and he did a nice job last night as well,” Quenneville said. “He brings pace to his game. The finish, he doesn’t have to necessarily have to produce at the rate of a second-line center. But you play with a guy like Kane, a lot of things can happen.”
Kruger’s earned the respect of teammates these past few seasons. Already a solid defensive player when he got here, Kruger became a strong penalty killer last season and has dramatically improved his faceoff percentages this season. Ranked 71st in the faceoff circle in 2012-13, Kruger is now 10th in the NHL, winning the same percentage as captain Jonathan Toews (56.8 percent).
“He’s one of the guys we definitely rely on when we’re trying to hold a lead,” Brent Seabrook said. “He does a great job on the penalty kill and in his own zone. He always seems to be a good option for us D-men to hit him with a hard pass, and he’s able to get the puck out. He can play on the offensive side of the puck. He’s pretty tricky with the puck. I don’t think a lot of people know that. He’s been good for us.”
Patrick Sharp, who played with Kruger on the second line a few times last season, said Kruger can do the job.
“He’s capable of playing anywhere; not a lot of people can say that. And he’s capable of making plays,” Sharp said. “He’s always been a good positional player and a guy who can make plays with the puck. He’s a big reason why we win in here because he accepts his role and does it the best he can at it.”
It’s been a good few days for Kruger, who was named to Team Sweden along with teammates Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjlmarsson on Tuesday. He’s also earned praise from Quenneville, who said the center has “had a lot of jump over the last few days.” Quenneville said Kruger’s work ethic is there all the time, not just in games.
“You commend him on his practice habits. He betters himself because he works so hard in practice and brings that into games,” Quenneville said. “He’s had a real nice progression to a good career. Getting picked for the Swedish team is a great compliment, but he’s got that will to find a way to contribute any way he can. And he’s moved up the ladder in a lot of people’s eyes.”
Kruger is also moving up the Blackhawks’ lineup. The Blackhawks want all of their players to develop all-around games, and Kruger has taken that, and done it, as seriously as anyone. It would be easy for him to look back at what he’s accomplished thus far, but Kruger’s focus is on what could be ahead.
“I more try to look forward and try to get better. That’s always been my mindset, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Kruger said. “If you play (on the second line) you play there. I’m happy to play with those guys, for sure.”