Losing center Marcus Kruger to a wrist injury back in mid-December was a frustrating loss for the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only was the veteran pivot in the midst of a disappointing offensive season, but he was due to become an RFA this offseason and was hoping for a new contract as well. All of these factors made the past few weeks very interesting for both Kruger and fans of the Blackhawks.
First, Stan Bowman rewarded Kruger’s patience the previous offseason by handing him a new three-year, $9.25 million extension that will keep him in Chicago for the foreseeable future. Then, just about two weeks later, Kruger returned to the lineup and helped his team win two straight games against the lowly Flames and Canucks.
One of the biggest reasons the Blackhawks had been looking forward to Kruger’s return so much was the weakness of the team’s penalty killing. Chicago’s PK unit currently ranks 24th in the NHL, and Joel Quenneville has clearly been missing Kruger’s skill defensively and on faceoffs. So naturally is was very encouraging to see the team kill off four straight penalties in the Swedish center’s return this past weekend.
His responsible play was on full display when he was on the ice as he averaged about 14 minutes per game and posted an impressive +15 CF total from the two games combined. However, his limited time on ice and role on the team are still reasons for concern moving forward.
Even though the center position has typically been a weaker one for the Blackhawks in year’s past, the addition of Artem Anisimov and the development of Teuvo Teravainen now give the Blackhawks a very respectable trio of NHL centers. The high ceilings of these players behind Jonathan Toews also make it unlikely that either one will ever be played in a fourth-line role, leaving that slot for Kruger.
And the above chart shows what that role has meant for Kruger over the past two seasons: defensive zone draws and weaker opponents than his Chicago counterparts. Which brings me to my next point on the recent developments involving Kruger, his new contract.
Did Bowman Overpay?
There is little question that Kruger’s most recent contract with the Blackhawks was, at least, a slight attempt at compensating the forward for taking a more team-friendly deal this past summer. The short term and low pay of that contract left the Blackhawks with crucial salary cap flexibility when shaping their roster this season, and Stan Bowman probably wanted to reward the patience and selfless attitude Kruger displayed when accepting that offer.
However, his new deal puts him on a level comparable to Charlie Coyle, Tyler Johnson, and Mikael Granlund when considering age, position, and cap hit across the league. Those three players are all major pieces of their teams’ offenses and definitely, appear to be more valuable players than Kruger when Chicago’s center depth is also considered.
And while the chart here shows that Kruger may be well behind his similarly-paid peers, he does contribute in other ways on the ice. For instance, few if any players in the NHL handle the same defensive responsibilities as Kruger on a nightly basis, while his passing and vision are both underrated as well.
The Price of Excellence
Bowman knew that re-signing Kruger wouldn’t exactly be cheap. After all, he is one of the game’s premier penalty-killers and has two Stanley Cups to his name already. However, the team’s limited salary cap flexibility means that his pay raise could come at the expense of more talented players like Teravainen or Artemi Panarin down the line. Kruger’s return is definitely welcomed for now, but his contract may come back to hurt the Blackhawks in the future.