By Sam Yoder
Chicago Blackhawks Writer
As we sit in the dog days of summer I have gotten the sense that the Hawks moves for the summer are starting to slow down. Now that the Vesey sweepstakes have ended (which the Hawks did not win), I want to start looking at the team as it sits now. The aspect that I will focus on today is something of old news, but I think it will really inform how the next few years will go for the Hawks.
If you look across the bottom of the leader board this last season, almost all of the teams (Edmonton excluded) seem to be completely lacking depth at center, instead when you look at the teams who have had great success (see Pittsburgh this year for a phenomenal example), they have at least three solid centers to carry them along.
Much has already been written about the dynamic Hawks second line with the award winning pairing of Kane and Panarin on the wings, anchored by Artem Anisimov down the middle. With the amount of articles I’ve read, or interviews I’ve heard, about how underrated Anisimov is, can he really be called underrated any more? Similarly I don’t think I need to say much about Jonathon Toews. Clearly he is one of the most talented leaders in the game right now, and a true two way, number one center that any team would be luck to have. The center who I think many people gloss over is Marcus Kruger.
Marcus Kruger is the perfect shut down center man for the Blackhawks. During the 2015 cup run he, along with Desjardins and Shaw, faced off against their opponents top lines night after night. They were buried in the defensive zone, and while they didn’t play the most minutes on the team, they played some of the hardest. Last year was no different, with 81.3% defensive zone starts, he had his back to the wall most of the time he stepped on the ice, and despite this his Corsi For % of 48.4 and Fenwick For % of 49.2 are impressive. Without looking at the context he played in a 48.4 Corsi isn’t great. However, when compared to Artem Anisimov for example, who had a Corsi For % of 50.2 and a Fenwick for % of 48.8 with a whopping 67.1% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, you can see why I am very happy with Marcus Kruger’s possession numbers.
Another way to look at his impact, is to examine how the Hawks play both with and without him in the lineup, especially on the penalty kill. From December 18th to March 26th last year Kruger was unable to play after surgery due to a wrist injury. Going into this period the Hawks had the 9th best PK unit in the league, which was in no small part due to Marcus Kruger’s phenomenal play. By March 15th they had dropped to 25th in the league. In 13 games without him in the lineup they dropped from being a top 10 powerplay, to a bottom 10 powerplay team. Another way to represent this statistically is that before his injury they had a penalty kill percentage of 82.4% and a shots against per 60mins of 54.8. While he was gone the PK% dive bombed to 76% and they were now facing 70.1 shots per 60mins. These stats combined to allow the other team an average of 2 goals per 60 minutes more against the Blackhawks while he was gone. Even more impressive is that for the rest of the season after he returned the team had a powerplay percentage of 95.2% (absolutely amazing, and even better than before he was injured), their shots against dropped back to 54.5 per 60mins, and their goals against per 60mins dropped a full 5.6 goals down to 2.9 per 60mins.
When he signed a three year extension back in March (with an AAV of $3.1M). I heard a lot of complaints about both the term, and the cap hit. Some fans complained that they felt like he is replaceable, and generally pointed to his mediocre at best offensive stats to back that up. However I disagree completely. The Hawks haven’t had this level of security down the middle in years, and I would argue that Marcus is someone they need in the team. Yes Toews is an elite level defensive forward when he needs to be, but with the Hawks’ recent lack of scoring, they need him contributing up front. With a bottom six center like Kruger in the lineup coach Quenneville can confidently leave the dirty work to Kruger’s line, and let Toews and Anisimov get the glory, goals, and assists up front.