Seeing defensive stalwart and underrated depth forward Marcus Kruger go down for four months after undergoing wrist surgery was certainly not a welcome sight for Blackhawks fans who have grown accustomed to seeing #16 leading Chicago’s penalty kill for the past four seasons. The veteran Swede is an effective face-off man and is often tasked with shutting down the opposing team’s top offensive line in defensive situations.
Kruger earned Joel Quenneville’s trust over the years due to his responsible play and intelligence on the ice, and losing his experience and consistency will be tough to overcome. However, the young player tasked with replacing Kruger in the lineup, Phillip Danault, has a tremendous opportunity to secure a long-term role with the organization if he’s effective in the ensuing months.
Danault was originally a first round pick by the Blackhawks (taken with the pick they received for sending Troy Brouwer to Washington) back in 2011 and has spent the last two full seasons playing for Rockford in the AHL. His compete-level and energy on defense were two of the largest factors that led to his drafting, and those traits translated to 38 points and a +20 rating in 70 AHL games last season.
He received a brief two-game stint with the Hawks last season, but Kruger’s injury gives him his first chance at an expanded role with the big club. And if he plays well over the next few months, a more consistent role with the team in the coming years shouldn’t be out of question either.
Quenneville wasted no time in getting Danault up to speed in his season debut against Buffalo as the center played the second most time of any player against the Sabres’ top line of Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, and Jack Eichel. His ability to take on tough matchups will be integral to his ability to replace Kruger in the bottom-six as Kruger was frequently given the toughest defensive assignments of any Hawks forward. He did this while also receiving seven of his ten 5on5 starts in the defensive zone and winning seven face-offs to help his team gain puck possession early in the play. Not a bad debut for someone tasked with replacing a two-time Stanley Cup winner.
If that kind of play can be sustained, it might make Stan Bowman question who his fourth line center should be moving forwards. While Kruger has certainly been very good in his time with the Blackhawks, he is also expected to receive a contract worth at least twice as much as one for Danault would cost. And with Andrew Shaw having a bounce-back season so far in 2015, Bowman may be forced to choose between the grit of Shaw and the defense of Kruger. And as of right now, Danault looks more NHL-ready than potential Shaw replacement Ryan Hartman playing in Rockford.
Either way, this coming stretch is a tremendous opportunity for Danault to secure a safer position in the Chicago lineup if he can take advantage of the difficult ice time that Quenneville seems to be willing to give him. Most young players aren’t given the chance to play against top competition the way Danault was against Buffalo, all he has to do now is prove that he deserves it.