We’re closing in on just a couple of weeks from NHL training camps opening up across the league, and restricted free agent forward Marcus Kruger is still without a new deal from the Chicago Blackhawks. Holding RFA status has definitely benefitted the cash-strapped ‘Hawks, who would like to clear up salary cap space in order to sign Kruger to the multi-year contract that he covets.
Given that he isn’t a tremendous point producer or top-six forward, teams aren’t necessarily willing to throw out an offer sheet either.
As such, it’s likely just going to be a matter of time before we see Kruger back in the fold, most likely on that deal with a longer term that he desires. And doing so would be in the best interest of the Blackhawks, who have seen Kruger serve as an integral part of now two of their three recent Stanley Cup title runs. However, what Kruger brings to the mix isn’t necessarily something that always shows up on the box score for the mainstream to see.
Kruger has served almost exclusively as the fourth-line center for the Blackhawks, providing limited offensive upside that might have seen him move up at any point into a larger role. There was some hope that he could latch onto perhaps a third-line role, but even then he doesn’t bring the type of offensive skill or upside that make him as much of an asset there as some of their other options in the upcoming season.
Even strictly as a fourth liner, though, Kruger has been a crucial element of the Blackhawks, and will likely continue to be one after he is eventually re-signed.
The offense is virtually non-existent, and that’s fine. He tallied 28 points in 81 games in 2013-14 before contributing just 17 to the effort last season in the same number of games. His shooting percentage dropped, but didn’t hinder him too much. His role, more than anything, restricted his offensive opportunities, but it’s also one that best suites his skill set and makes him such a consistent success for the Blackhawks.
Kruger starts the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, and that’s probably putting it lightly. Last season, 80.7% of his starts came in the defensive end, which was actually a slight decrease from the previous year. It’s no surprise that he finished with a minus-5 rating and a 44.4 CF% given the volume of shifts that he started in his own end.
Nonetheless, he finished with 50 block shots, 30 takeaways, and limited his turnovers to only nine on the season. As his career has gone on with the ‘Hawks, he’s become more willing to use the body in order to gain position, particularly in his own end, while also becoming far more adept in the faceoff circle, maintaining a 53.3% success rate at the dot last year.
Even more than accepting a role that puts him in a precarious position nearly each and every time he begins a shift, Kruger spends a good chunk of his time playing a man down.
The only player to log more ice time shorthanded from the forward position last year was Ben Smith. With Smith having been traded at the deadline, that means it’s Kruger, who averaged 2:13 of shorthanded time during the regular season. It was a unit that improved as the year went on, ultimately forming a top-10 PK group which Kruger served as a centerpiece of.
It’s not as if Kruger is a typical fourth-line player, the likes of which are a dime-a-dozen. He’s not a plug-and-play guy that can just eat up a few minutes in serving that bottom line role. Despite his fourth-line status, he’s an absolutely integral part of this team moving forward.
He serves the role of a pure defensive player, and he fills it well. He kills penalties and shoulders the load of the defensive zone starts, maintaining success in the faceoff circle that sets him up well in allowing the Blackhawks to remain a strong defensive club. As such, it may be in the best interest of the Blackhawks for this impending deal with Kruger to be one of the longer-term variety, given the rarity of a player like this.