The Chicago Blackhawks have been trying to find a spot for Marcus Kruger ever since he came over from the SEL in Sweden.
Now, after one year playing as the second-line center, the Blackhawks have found the perfect spot for Kruger: fourth-line center.
As unglamorous as that may sound, Kruger has embraced the role.
‘‘Everyone’s looking for more ice time, right?’’ Kruger said. ‘‘Everyone wants to score goals,’’ (via Chicago Sun-Times).
But what is even more impressive is how Kruger has handled himself on the team's penalty kill, a unit that ranked near the bottom in the NHL last season.
Conversely, with Kruger's help, the Blackhawks rank second in the NHL on the penalty kill so far this season.
Kruger—along with Michael Frolik—has shined on the penalty kill this year. Most notably, Chicago killed off three penalties in a row in the second period against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday Night.
The resurgence of the penalty kill can be attributed to Kruger and Frolik's drive to be a part of this team, to succeed in the NHL no matter the cost.
Following Chicago's win against the Red Wings, Kruger stated, "We just try to outwork them as hard as we can. We take pride in doing the preparation before the game and [learning] everything about their power play. That’s an ongoing process all year, so we have to keep building on that" (via Mark Lazerus Chicago Sun-Times).
Kruger was considered to be the Blackhawks' answer to their second-line center problem last season. He was lackluster, though, failing to produce and win enough faceoffs in order to stay in that position.
Drafted by GM Dale Tallon in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Kruger was brought in with the expectation of being a top-six forward. But after he failed to produce in his rookie year, coach Joel Quenneville was forced to knock him down to the third and fourth lines.
Now, he's finally found NHL success.
Playing on the fourth line aside Brandon Bollig and Michael Frolik may help Kruger develop as a complete NHL player. Mix that with his ability to kill penalties and generate energy for the Blackhawks, and you have a valuable player.
How long he stays successful at that position will depend on his desire to contribute to a winning team like the Blackhawks. But stranger things have happened; players have given up on their team solely because they thought they were being underutilized.
Kruger's improved play this season may also be attributed to his stint with the Rockford IceHogs late last year due to the NHL lockout.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent said that many players who started in the AHL this season have found success at the NHL level (via Scott Powers ESPNChicago):
As we’re told, we’re evaluated here in the American Hockey League by how well we prepare guys for the NHL. That’s really our job to teach them how to be professional on a day-to-day basis, instill in them good habits in their day-to-day games. They’re young. They’re young hockey players. At times, it’s not about winning or losing down here. It’s about getting those guys mentally and physically prepared, so when they get their called by the National Hockey League they’re ready to go.
Players who have been in the AHL or Europe have found great success at the beginning of this short NHL season. Kruger may be benefiting by having that extra step over other NHL players on the penalty kill.
It looks likely that Kruger will remain a fourth-line center until the season concludes. His play and the depth he provides will be vital to the Blackhawks in this shortened, injury-prone season.
Maybe Kruger will be a top-six forward in the future, but for now, he's the perfect fourth-line center for Chicago.
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