It’s now a day before September, and one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ key components of their roster still is without a contract heading into the 2015-2016 NHL season. Marcus Kruger, 25, has been a crucial cog in Chicago’s two most recent Stanley Cup championships serving as the fourth line pivot.
Kruger’s role has been to assist the line of Jonathan Toews in handling the top competitions of the opposing teams. In doing so, he’s been able to help alleviate Toews’ responsibilities in order to give him more offensive opportunities. With Kruger at Joel Quenneville’s disposal, he doesn’t have to lean so heavily on Toews defensively.
Here’s a quick rundown on why Stan Bowman hasn’t been able to bring Kruger back into the fold longterm, and why it’s so critical that he find a way to do so in the near future.
With several huge contracts already on the books, the salary cap struggle of the Blackhawks has been well documented for quite some time now. That being said, it’s imperative that they find a way to fit a new deal for Kruger under the limit.
According to General Fanager, the Blackhawks currently have $231,540 in space beneath the salary cap ceiling. To put that into perspective, that’s less than half of what a player would cost at league minimum salary. Obviously, Kruger is not a player whose value lies anywhere that of a replacement level league minimum skater.
Keeping Kruger around is proving to be a tough problem to figure out. If his cap hit exceeds $3 million, I’ll be very surprised, but it’s definitely not going to come in at anything under $1.5 million. That’s far more than a rounding issue for the Blackhawks in their current cap state, and it seems imperative that they move a higher-salary player to make room. The most likely candidates for such a move would seem to be Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg, but at this time the outlook of other teams wanting them is muddy at best.
Last season, Kruger ranked 6th out of Chicago’s 18 skaters who played at least 500 minutes last season in shots on goal ratio at a sterling 53.1%. This despite the fact that he plays on the fourth line with the weakest available line mates and often goes up against the toughest competition that the other teams have to offer.
In doing this, he ranks above the Blackhawks team average in both shot generation (+.32 per 60 minutes) and shot suppression (-1.81 per 60 minutes). His influence on the team’s underlying numbers is strong, but he’s also a relatively productive offensive player, especially in comparison to the players who fill similar roles on other teams around the league.
Kruger last season put up 1.12 points per 60 minutes at even strength. That’s by no means great, but it also puts him in the company of plenty third line players, whereas Kruger is used as a fourth liner. Some comparable players in terms of even-strength offensive output include Teddy Purcell, Alex Semin, Nathan Gerbe, and Dustin Brown. Again, that’s not mind-blowingly outstanding company to keep from the standpoint of offensive production, but it suggests that he performs above his lineup slot as an offensive producer, which isn’t even his main job.
All of this is to say that it’s very important that the Blackhawks find a way to keep Kruger. The most recent cap crunch has already cost the team depth players like Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya. Kruger may also be a depth player, but he’s a depth player who fills a penalty-killing depth forward slot from the fourth line in an above average way. That’s not easy to find in today’s NHL, and there’s no denying that the contributions of such a player, as Kruger’s case in Chicago, go a long way in helping a team reach championship caliber levels.