LOS ANGELES — No kid grows up dreaming of becoming Marcus Kruger.
Everyone wants to be the superstar, the guy who scores 40 goals, who makes all the highlight reels and goes down as an all-time great. There’s little glory and even less glamour in being the guy who hurls himself in front of flying pucks, who kills penalties, who starts the overwhelming majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.
But Dennis Rasmussen is well aware of how big a role Kruger has played in the Blackhawks’ success. And while he’s only 37 days younger than his fellow Swede, the late-bloomer Rasmussen knows his path to long-term NHL success and stability is carving out a Kruger-like niche for himself.
“Those guys are important,” Rasmussen said. “You see Krugs, he’s won two Stanley Cups and he’s been out on the ice [in the final minute] when they won it, both times. He’s been on the ice at the end of big games when they’re trying to protect a lead. And that’s what you want to be. You want to be on the ice when everything happens and it’s all on the line. It’s great.”
After spending 44 games with the Hawks last season as mostly a fourth-line afterthought, and entering training camp as a long shot to even make the team, Rasmussen has forced his way into a much larger role this year. Since entering the lineup in the third game of the season, he’s been scratched just once. He’s averaging nearly 12 minutes of ice time a game, up from just nine last season, and that’s largely because he’s become one of the Hawks’ top penalty-killers.
Among Hawks forwards, only Kruger has seen more shorthanded ice time, and the two are usually paired together on the PK rotation. After a historically bad start to the season on the kill, Rasmussen has helped stabilize the Hawks’ penalty kill, all while entrenching himself as a fixture in the Hawks lineup.
There are all sorts of technical concerns on the penalty kill — “controlled pressure,” Rasmussen calls it — and Rasmussen has been relentlessly picking the brains of Kruger and Niklas Hjalmarsson, along with assistant coach Mike Kitchen, to learn all the nuances of the Hawks’ scheme, and the tendencies of their opponents. But more than anything, Kruger has noticed the way that Rasmussen has embraced what can be an inglorious — but invaluable — role.
“It’s not [glamorous],” Kruger said. “But you have to really take pride in it. He’s doing a great job of that, and he’s curious all the time, asking questions and stuff like that. He’s been adapting very quickly.”
Perhaps on another team, in another role, Rasmussen could be a more offensive player. He twice scored 16 goals in short Swedish league seasons, and had 13 tallies in his first season at Rockford. In 63 career NHL games entering Saturday night’s game in Los Angeles, he had just five goals, including one this season. But he has size and skill, as he showed with his acrobatic effort Friday afternoon in Anaheim to get the puck into the slot, which led directly to a Ryan Hartman goal.
Of course, Rasmussen didn’t even get an assist on the play, because it touched the stick of Anaheim’s Shea Theodore for a brief moment before Kruger hacked it back to Hartman. But Rasmussen’s used to that. Glory isn’t in the job description. Only winning is.
“I’m trying to do my role as good as possible every game,” Rasmussen said. “Of course, I want to help the team on offense, too, and take my chances when I get them. But I’ve been mostly a defensive guy here, a lot of defensive-zone draws and penalty-killing. That’s my role here, and I like that role. Every team needs guys like that.”