Thursday, December 1, 2011
For now, center is all Kruger's
By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- So the trial lasted exactly two months and 25 games. Patrick Kane produced seven goals, 17 assists and a plus-9 rating as the Chicago Blackhawks' second-line center.
He’ll take his new but familiar position to the right of Jonathan Toews when the Hawks host the New York Islanders Friday night---and he’ll stay there for the foreseeable future, according to coach Joel Quenneville.
The Hawks have little to lose elevating Marcus Kruger to second-line center.
Kane’s play at center was very good but most of that came in October and early November when he was the best player on the ice most nights for the Hawks. But things quickly changed by mid-month.
"I would assume he's going to keep playing center because he's played very well there," general manager Stan Bowman said on Nov. 18. "The biggest thing for us is it's really hard to defend our team when those two lines are clicking."
Bowman said that before the Hawks took on the Calgary Flames in Alberta, Canada. Little did he know that game would start a slide in which the Hawks would lose four of the next six, three of them in embarrassing fashion.
Kane’s struggles actually started before the recent road trip and coincided with Marian Hossa being taken off his line. But not many people thought he would really last in the middle, certainly not for a playoff run.
What’s more surprising than Kane being moved back to wing is Marcus Kruger’s ascension to second-line center.
Let’s be clear here. The Hawks are probably over-reaching by giving the young Swede a chance to play between Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, but right now, they have little to lose.
“I think everyone has had some stretches where they’ve been at the top end of their game ... and they’ve all had stretches where it hasn’t come as easy,” Quenneville said. “When you move them around a little bit sometimes it comes out and all of a sudden they’re little more confident in the scoring areas, they’re back to where we expect them to be. We have a lot of options. This is one we haven’t explored yet. It’s something we’ll try.”
Yes, it is something to try and it’s the right time to do it. Kruger is playing better and better, especially in the offensive zone where he’s helped produce on the Hawks’ second power play unit.
“He’s gaining confidence by the day,” Toews said of Kruger. “He’s been great on the power play, and I think that’s one of those things that shows confidence. There’s pressure to hold on to the puck and pressure to make plays. He’s only getting better and better.”
It was nearly two months to the day Kruger was sent to Rockford after a mediocre camp. His play in September must have surprised the Hawks considering Quenneville called him “arguably one of our top guys” from Game 7 of their playoff series against Vancouver last season.
With his demotion to the minors, Kruger missed opening night in Dallas but hasn’t missed a game since.
“Where he has progressed from the beginning of camp to today, maybe that’s a big surprise,” Quenneville said.
First, he centered the fourth line while getting penalty-killing duties then he was added to a make shift power play unit which has been fantastic. He got more playing time filling in for an injured Dave Bolland on the third line and stayed on Bolland’s wing when he returned. Now he gets his chance with Hossa and Sharp.
“Two great players,” Kruger said Thursday. “I’m looking forward to [Friday]. I’m just going to try and play my game. Of course I know the guys are good with the puck. I still need to hold onto it and try to make plays myself as well.”
It’s a savvy point by the rookie. His instincts might be to give up the puck to the Hawks’ stars but it might not always be the right play. Most rookies have peaks and valleys. Kruger bottomed out in training camp but has gone in only one direction since. He hasn’t been on the normal roller coaster most young players’ experience. It might still happen but the Hawks won’t know his ceiling for this season without trying.
As for Kane at center it's believable the Hawks figured it can’t hurt to try him there since they had few new options to start the season but at some point it was going to come to an end, or at least be put on hold.
“It was definitely a bit of a challenge,” Kane said. “Playing the position for seven or eight years you get used to playing the right side, but I don’t think it’s totally out of the books yet. I think it’s something they can go back to if they need it.”
More than anything this re-emphasizes the Hawks need to get a center via trade. It’s doubtful anyone truly believes Kruger is the answer for this season just as Kane really wasn’t.
Bowman has three months until the trade deadline to find one but for now, Mr. Kruger, the center is all yours.