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Blackhawks facing difficult decision on Marcus Kruger’s future

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Marcus Kruger used to exist in a blissful bubble of oblivion, free from the inexhaustible news cycle and rumor mill of the hockey world. When it came to hockey news, Kruger was usually the last person to know, which is just how he liked it.

Then Niklas Hjalmarsson got a Twitter account.

“Me and Hammer sit together on the bus, and when something big happened before when he didn’t have Twitter, he didn’t find anything out, and I didn’t find anything out,” Kruger said. “Now he’s on there all the time. It’s almost like having a new guy on the bus or something. But it’s good because he can sort through everything for me and keep me updated.”

So far, none of that news has involved Kruger himself. With the March 1 trade deadline barely a week away, Kruger’s not going anywhere. But it’s entirely possible he’s going somewhere eventually. Kruger carries a cap hit of $3.08 million, and the Blackhawks might be inclined to leave him unprotected in the expansion draft after the season or make him the latest salary-cap casualty after that.

Marcus Kruger attempts to score on Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner during Sunday's game at KeyBank Center. (AP Photo)

Kruger understands the reality and grasps the possibility. But he’s not going down internet rabbit holes trying to do the roster math or figuring out what the Vegas Golden Knights might have in mind or asking Hjalmarsson for updates about his future. 

“I try not to worry about that,” Kruger said. “Obviously, you know stuff’s going to happen in the summer. I mean, look at all the guys that came here the same time as me — they’re not here anymore. You know that’s always something that could happen, but you can’t really worry about it because then it’s going to affect your game negatively. I’m here now.”

Kruger’s an interesting case. His $3.08 million contract is somehow outlandish and completely warranted. Your average fourth-line center doesn’t make anywhere near that much money, but Kruger’s not your average fourth-line center. He played a key role in two Stanley Cup runs, is the Hawks’ top penalty-killer, and on a team with perennial Selke Trophy candidates Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, he’s actually the Hawks’ best purely defensive forward.

“Marcus does lots of small things that people don’t see really well, especially in the defensive zone,” Hossa said. “He kills penalties and plays against top lines, and you might not see it all when you’re sitting in the stands, but we see it on the team. He’s a good player.”

He’s a difference-maker, too, the kind of player who makes good teams great. But he’s still a bottom-six player with two goals in two seasons making $3.08 million. And with the cap potentially staying flat and Artemi Panarin’s new contract kicking in, the Hawks might not be able to make the math work.

With eight players locked in with no-movement clauses, the Hawks don’t have a lot of flexibility when it comes to the expansion draft. Kruger is a candidate to be left exposed, and Vegas could alleviate the Hawks’ cap concerns by plucking Kruger instead of a cheaper option such as, say, Trevor van Riemsdyk or a veteran role player on a new contract or an experienced minor-leaguer.

But while Dennis Rasmussen and Tanner Kero are solid bottom-six centers, Krugers don’t come along all that often.

“Organizationally, that’s something that’s looked at a lot, whether it’s the money side of it, the business side of it, the hockey side,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “There have been some [expansion-draft] discussions, but it’s a little bit out there and really not on my front burner.”

But the Hawks will have to make a difficult decision on Kruger eventually because he’s somehow invaluable and overpaid — a luxury. And one the Hawks might not be able to afford.

“I’ve never been a guy that has really paid much attention to stuff like that,” Kruger said. “That’s just how I am. If you have Twitter, you probably see a lot of rumors and stuff like that. I’m pretty protected from that. I just focus on myself, and whatever happens, happens.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com