Pat Brisson spent much of June and July hammering out two of the biggest contracts in NHL history with Stan Bowman, ensuring that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane would remain with the Blackhawks through the primes of their careers.
The next negotiation with Bowman for Brisson and his partner, J.P. Barry, won’t be quite as significant, and it won’t be nearly as lucrative. And in fact, there’s no guarantee that Marcus Kruger even will be offered a contract by the Hawks — not with a salary-cap crunch looming, and not with a rapidly falling Canadian dollar threatening to negate the expected gains of a new $5.2 billion Canadian television contract.
But while Kruger isn’t a superstar, it doesn’t mean he’s not valuable. Kruger has been the constant in the bottom six of the Hawks lineup, and the lynchpin of one of the league’s top penalty-killing units. His linemates have kept changing — from Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland to Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith to Brandon Saad and Jeremy Morin — but his line’s role rarely does.
“You’ve got a responsible line,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “That line’s always effective, and you can use them against top lines.”
While Quenneville tries to maximize the offensive chances for players such as Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, it’s Kruger’s lot in life to start behind the 8-ball. His most high-profile job is that of penalty-killer, meaning he’s out there down a man. And last year, only about 13 percent of his faceoffs came in the offensive zone, and usually against the opponents’ best players. This year, he’s seeing a bit more offensive zone starts, but he’s still used overwhelmingly in the shadow of his own goal.
He’s out there to prevent goals and to flip the ice. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world, but somebody’s got to do it. And few do it better.
“Krugs almost exclusively gets used in the defensive zone,” Quenneville said. “He gets a lot of defensive-zone starts, but he ends up in the offensive zone quite a bit.”
Kruger shrugged off the fact that it’s a contract year for him — he’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and he said there have been no discussions yet — but he’s clearly making a more concerted effort to be more offensive. Despite his lopsided usage, he’s ninth on the team with 33 shots on goal — that’s more than second-line center Andrew Shaw (28), Ben Smith (24) and Bryan Bickell (24) and just two fewer than Brandon Saad. Kruger has nearly doubled his shots per game from 1.2 to 2.2, even as his ice time average has dropped from about 14 minutes to 13 minutes per game. He has a goal and two assists to show for it.
“Of course, that’s something you want to do,” Kruger said. “Creating more chances out there is a good first step. We’re struggling with scoring goals 5-on-5 a little bit, so it’s important for my line to help out there some nights.”
Kruger was rewarded for his solid play with a promotion to the third line alongside Smith and Marian Hossa on Sunday. He’s had occasional tastes of what it’s like to be on a scoring line in the past, briefly centering Kane on the second line a few times over the past few years, but always winds up back in that fourth-line, checking role that he knows so well. Part of it is, with a penalty-kill that’s No. 1 in the league right now at a whopping 91.1 percent success rate, Quenneville is wary of over-using Kruger. And part of it is, why mess with what works?
It’s not a flashy role, nor is it the kind that gets rewarded with multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts. But it’s one Kruger embraces, and one he hopes to keep filling for the Hawks for years to come.
“The only thing I’m worrying about now is to play good, and all the other stuff is going to sort itself out,” Kruger said. “This is an awesome play to play, in front of this crowd and on this team. I can only do my best, and that’s going to help us win, and help me with a contract, too.”