Before Tuesday night’s gongshow performance at the United Center, coach Joel Quenneville said center Marcus Kruger might return for the Hawks’ next game on Saturday night in Calgary. Is Kruger, who had only one point in 33 games before getting hurt, really the answer to everything ailing the Blackhawks?
The Blackhawks won’t admit it, but they’re a tired team. Over the last couple weeks they’ve been dominated by other Western Conference playoff teams.
Could one player change everything?
Since January 1, the Blackhawks have sucked at the dot. Period. Blackhawks not-named-Toews have won 44.5 percent of their faceoffs since the beginning of the 2016 calendar year, leading to Quenneville rolling Toews out there for more draws as the season progresses. Toews has taken 33 percent of the Blackhawks faceoffs in 2016, but is up to nearly 37 percent in March. To his credit, Toews has won 57.6 percent of his faceoffs this year.
Kruger has been out since mid-December, but still ranks third on the Blackhawks in faceoffs taken this year behind Toews and Artem Anisomov. He was essentially a 50 percent player at the dot this season (he has won two fewer than he’s lost in nearly 400 attempts). In his absence, the likes of Phillip Danault, Vince Hinostroza and Dennis Rasmussen have been asked to take regular faceoffs and all three rookies have struggled.
Since January 1, the Blackhawks have allowed 24 power play goals in 35 games. Unfortunately, that includes a good January; the Hawks have allowed 20 power play goals in their last 25 games. Overall, the Blackhawks are killing only 76.2 percent of their penalties this calendar year.
The Blackhawks penalty kill unit wasn’t having a great season before Kruger got hurt, but it hadn’t reached dumpster fire status yet. Chicago killed 81.1 percent of their short-handed situations from the start of the regular season through December. More importantly, they had allowed only 21 power play goals in 39 games before the new year.
As you can see from this chart, however, Kruger was playing a more important role than just “fourth line center” for the Hawks.
Kruger’s absence has been amplified since the Blackhawks traded Phillip Danault to Montreal for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. Though Danault had won only 44 percent of his faceoffs in January and February, we can see from this chart that the Hawks were using him in a role that compared favorably to Kruger.
Kruger, who was a restricted free agent last summer, waited until the late in the summer to take a very team-friendly one-year deal from the Hawks. He was rewarded, however. After the Danault deal, the Blackhawks signed Kruger to a three-year extension. His value has been painfully evident in his absence, and his return might be a desperately needed spark for the Hawks.