As Marcus Kruger’s return looms, Danault, Rasmussen still auditioning

SHARE As Marcus Kruger’s return looms, Danault, Rasmussen still auditioning
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Blackhawks center Dennis Rasmussen has played every game since Dec. 8. (AP Photo)

MINNEAPOLIS — Phil Danault and Dennis Rasmussen got a taste of life as a champion on Thursday morning, roaming the hallowed halls of the White House and shaking hands with the president. But when the time came for the official ceremony honoring the Blackhawks for their latest Stanley Cup run, Danault and Rasmussen took a seat in the audience. Meanwhile, standing behind President Barack Obama was, among others, Marcus Kruger — a smiling reminder that the two rookies’ spots in the lineup aren’t exactly etched in stone.

Danault is a former first-round draft pick who has won over Joel Quenneville with his defensive play and occasional bursts of offensive creativity. Rasmussen has been a pleasant surprise, a big, steadying force in the middle of an ever-changing fourth line. But Kruger is a two-time Stanley Cup champion. The Hawks’ top purely defensive forward. One of the best penalty-klllers in the NHL.

And the Hawks are still hoping he returns from his broken wrist in time for the start of the playoffs.

“It’s tough not to think about,” Danault said. “Kruger’s a great player, and I think we’re going to need him, too, for the playoffs. We’ll see. I have no idea how it’s going to work. I’m just trying to think about my game and stay focused.”

Where Kruger slots back in — and who ends up on the outside looking in — largely will depend on what happens between now and the Feb. 29 trade deadline. If the Hawks land the top-six winger they’re looking for without giving up a roster player, Andrew Shaw likely will slide back into the bottom six, bumping either Brandon Mashinter or Jiri Sekac out of the lineup. Kruger’s return then likely would leave Danault or Rasmussen fighting for the last center spot on the team.

But if the Hawks come up empty at the trade deadline, things get even more interesting. Kruger is a center, and a good one, at that. But he played on the wing during the Hawks’ 2013 Cup run. Does Joel Quenneville put him there for the postseason, to lessen the defensive and faceoff burden as he returns from a four-month absence? Or can Danault or Rasmussen slide over and try their hand at the wing, taking on an unfamiliar role as rookies in their first postseason?

“Of course, I’m thinking about it,” Rasmussen said. “No matter what, if I’ve been here three days or two months, I’ve got to prove myself every day. That’s always how I think.”

In the competition between the two rookies, Danault has the edge simply because he’s played a larger role this season. Centering the third line with Andrew Desjardins and Teuvo Teravainen, Danault has been more of an offensive threat, even though the goals have been few and far between lately. Rasmussen knows the feeling. He scored three goals in his first seven games to entrench himself on the fourth line, finally putting an end to the Rockford shuffle the Hawks played for the first couple months of the season. But he hasn’t scored since, and the fourth line has been largely dormant offensively, though adequate defensively.

“It was good to get the goals in the beginning and help my confidence,” Rasmussen said. “If you score a goal, you get proof that you’re at least doing something right. It’s always good to get the goals, and hopefully I can get some more. But that’s not the main goal when I’m going into a game. I just want to be a reliable player and bring energy and everything like that.”

Quenneville has been pleased with both rookies this season. But unless your name is Artemi Panarin, no rookie ever feels totally secure with the Hawks. Ask Teuvo Teravainen last season. Ask Erik Gustafsson this year. Danault and Rasmussen have helped the Hawks withstand the loss of Kruger and stabilize the bottom six after an offseason of upheaval. But as long as the specter of Kruger looms in the not-too-distant future, they’re both still auditioning for a postseason role.

“I always want to prove myself,” Danault said. “I’m still on my entry-level contract, so I still have to work on certain things and be better. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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