Marcus Kruger has been gone for three months. A short amount of time in the real world, but in terms of hockey it is an eternity. In the time that he has been out, Richard Panik has arrived, Jiri Sekac has come and gone, Phillip Danault made his debut and was traded, and Andrew Ladd returned. Kruger even graciously gave up his number to the returning veteran.
The Blackhawks have gone on some great runs in Kruger’s absence, but lately, they’ve faltered having given up seven of their last 10 games. So, the return of their fourth-line center couldn’t come at a better time.
Marcus Kruger has been activated from IR… and here he is after practice today discussing his return. https://t.co/inafHoWB1h
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) March 25, 2016
Special Teams Specialist
He has been missed tremendously on the penalty kill, and should be a solid shot in the arm for the Blackhawks on special teams. He has also been missed in his fourth-line shutdown role along with Andrew Desjardins and Andrew Shaw, who have both been displaced in the lineup filling other gaps.
— Slavko Bekovic (@SBekovic) March 25, 2016
Make no mistake, Kruger’s return is in no way an easy fix for all that ails the Blackhawks. He will bring some fresh energy, and certainly his presence should stabilize the lines a bit, but there is still a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of ground that the Blackhawks will have to recover before the start of the playoffs.
Part of that will be working to regain the chemistry that was lost as the trades rolled in and the realignments necessitated by Marian Hossa’s and Kruger’s injuries. Though a lot of it is simply digging themselves out of the slump the Blackhawks have been buried in since March began.
Not an easy task by any stretch, but certainly this adjustment should be familiar to many of the long time Blackhawks. They’ve had key trades at the trade deadline nearly every year, and for whatever reason, March has never been a great month (though none quite as bad as this March has been so far).
No Simple Fixes
Anyone thinking Krugs is back, and all is right with the world’ is likely to get a very rude awakening. Sure, Kruger brings a lot to the table, but he’s coming back from a particularly tough injury for a guy that is relied upon in the faceoff dot, as well as being tasked with a very physical sort of game that being on the fourth line demands.
How important is getting Marcus Kruger back for #Blackhawks? 58.3% of his faceoffs have come in defensive zone, which is third-most in NHL.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) March 25, 2016
A dislocated wrist is awful if you sit at a desk all day. Imagine how much harder it would be to have to deal with the jarring force of another 200 pound menace (with a little lumber to bash said wrist no less) who desperately wants that same little black piece of rubber you’re battling for. He’s going to have to adjust to being back in the thick of the Blackhawks run down the stretch where every team is playing with a purpose. Either to inch up in their current playoff slot, or just simply battling to beat the Cup champions one last time as they get ready for a long and grueling golf season.
The only thing that is certain is that no one is going to sleep on the Blackhawks, even though a few teams have caught the Blackhawks asleep on the job lately. A trend this team desperately needs to fix if they have any hopes of finishing the season the way they started. As Stanley Cup champions.
A few months ago, that seemed like a very real possibility, but right now nothing could seem more uncertain. Of course, if you look at the Anaheim Ducks, they are the perfect example of why you never count teams out. They went from dead last in the division to a battle for first. Certainly, the Blackhawks are in a better place than the Ducks were at the start of the season, and even at the start of 2016. They’ve stumbled, but they can still get back up.
No one said winning was easy, and it certainly isn’t always pretty. Right now, the Blackhawks have to be looking for their next win, and they’ll have to play each game as though it’s their last. One game at a time. Winning the division is slipping from their grasp, but staying out of the wild card is more likely the top priority now.
Slowing the Line Blender
With Kruger’s return, the fourth line will likely shift back to Desjardins, Shaw, and Kruger. That will likely follow a solid third line of Richard Panik, Teuvo Teravainen and Tomas Fleischmann. It would appear that head coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t like what he’s getting from Dale Weise, who has yet to really shine as a Blackhawk. Though Weise could certainly factor in here down the road.
As of Friday’s morning skate, it looks like Weise will, at least, be scratched in Saturday’s game against the Calgary Flames.
#Blackhawks lines include Kruger centering 4th, between Desjardins and Shaw … and Panik on 3rd line. Weise (scratch?) filling in for Kane.
— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) March 25, 2016
At some points, the Blackhawks will likely employ the nuclear option where Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews play together, at least until they have worked out the kinks. However, it would seem that the line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Kane will still be the anchor line that doesn’t change much holding the second-line spot most of the time.
Toews, Ladd, and Hossa should be the top line, as the size and dependable two-way play from that trio will be key going forward. However, there will likely still be a lot of juggling going on until the Blackhawks exorcise whatever demons have been plaguing them of late.
Panik and Dennis Rasmussen are most likely to find themselves the odd men out as the playoffs begin, but both have done enough to prove their worth to coach Q, and could be called upon to fill in any gaps along the way.
Panik has been very good over the last few games along with Shaw, even when the Blackhawks as a whole looked pretty bad. So, he should still find his way into the lineup as a utility guy that can bring some energy and a scoring touch. There is still a good chance that Panik may steal that spot on the third line long-term, and Weise could become the odd man out though Weise’s more physical style would be an asset against the Ducks or Los Angeles Kings.
Whatever is to come, Kruger’s presence is certainly something that all of the lines should benefit from.
Duck, Duck, Deja Vu
Shaw has been a spark plug on whatever line he has played on of late, but he is at his best all around when he plays on that shutdown line with Kruger and Desjardins.
The trio was outstanding in the playoffs last year and was especially noticeable against the hard-hitting, aggressive Ducks. Since it is likely these two teams could face off again, this line could find themselves back in a very similar role, and Anaheim will likely be coming out with a bitter taste in their mouths from the disappointment of their Game 7 loss last year fresh in their memory.
Kruger, Desjardins, and Shaw were tasked with keeping the Ducks off the board when the score was tight. They saw most of their starts in the defensive zone, and they excelled in that role. The Ducks looked frustrated and angry, after every shift as Shaw jawed at them, Desjardins battled for the puck and Kruger just kept his charge out of reach.
The three forwards play very different styles of hockey, but they are perfectly suited to play on the line together. Kruger is always the guy you want on the dot in the defensive zone as he carries a 58.3 percent success rate in defensive zone starts, which is good enough for third overall in the league. However, the big question mark will be how effective the centerman will be upon his return. If he can get anywhere near that number, the Blackhawks will certainly be happy with that.
The Blackhawks will not be cured of the funk they have been mired in just because Kruger has returned, but they will certainly enjoy a boost to their center depth, and hopefully his presence will be enough to light a fuse and re-energize the Blackhawks going forward.
Whatever is yet to come, Kruger will be a welcomed addition on the ice and in the locker room.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske