Marcus Kruger thought he was done, the 2010-11 season behind him. He figured he could spend the rest of the spring and summer getting his mind and body right for what he hoped would be his first NHL training camp.
Then he got a surprising phone call.
‘‘They asked me if I wanted to come here, and, of course, you get excited,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘That wasn’t something I expected.’’
He didn’t expect the Blackhawks to bring him over from Sweden as a 20-year-old rookie with 10 games left in the regular season. He certainly didn’t expect the Hawks to throw him into the fire for seven regular-season games in the middle of a playoff push. And he really didn’t expect to play in five of seven games in an epic first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks. He even played in Game 7, and coach Joel Quenneville recalled him being one of the Hawks’ best players that night.
It burned the first year of his entry-level contract, but it was thrilling — and invaluable — for Kruger.
‘‘We were pushing for a playoff spot, and I just got right into it and tried to do my best,’’ he said. ‘‘Playing those games and those intense playoff games against Vancouver was huge for me. I proved to myself that I could play on that level. That was big for me. It’s similar to what Teuvo is going through right now.’’
Teuvo, of course, is Teuvo Teravainen, the Hawks’ prized 19-year-old rookie. Like Kruger, Teravainen came to Chicago at the end of his season in Europe. Like Kruger, he has been thrown right into the mix. And like Kruger, it should pay dividends next fall.
‘‘Just coming over, it helped to know the guys and know everyone around the team,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘That helped me with the transition. But getting those games, proving to myself that I could play, that was the biggest part.’’
Kruger played in the 200th game of his career Friday, and he has established himself as a shutdown defender and penalty-killer, entrenched on the Hawks’ so-called fourth line. The Hawks envision a different career path for Teravainen: a high-end skill player expected to fill their long-standing void at second-line center.
But when he first came over, Kruger was considered an offensive weapon, too. He had led his team in scoring in Europe with six goals and 29 assists in 52 games, and he got a long look at second-line center during his first full NHL season in 2011-12.
‘‘Back in Sweden, I had a bit more of an offensive role maybe, but my strength has always been the two-way game,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘So I knew it was going to be tough to go right in there and play in a top-six role. I just tried to fit in where I could, and that’s what I’ve been doing.’’
So if there’s a downside to Kruger’s emergence as a defensive force, it’s that his top-six opportunities are limited. Earlier this season, Quenne-ville gave him a crack at centering Patrick Kane’s line. It lasted one game. Still, Kruger has seven goals and 20 assists for a career-high 27 points while skating mostly with Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith.
‘‘When that line is out there, we encourage him to score and make plays,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He gets some other ice time besides that, quote, checking assignment. But he’s very effective at it, and he’s carved out a nice niche for himself.’’
Two hundred games in and at only 23 years old, Kruger still craves a top-six spot. For now, though, he’ll keep relishing the role he has.
‘‘Of course, I want to play there and want to get more time up there and prove I can do that, but it’s all about winning,’’ Kruger said. ‘‘The only thing more fun than scoring goals is winning.’’