The Chicago Blackhawks have had one consistent problem that has dogged them for years: They don’t have a true second line center.
They have tried just about everything within their power to try to fix the situation, moving guys like Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Dave Bolland, and a host of others into that position, but as it stands right now, the team still doesn’t have that spot locked up.
Granted, it hasn’t hurt them all that much overall. Yes, Kane’s offensive numbers have been hampered by having Michal Handzus centering his line, but the fact is that Kane is still able to do a lot of things with the puck because of his abilities as a skater, passer, and shooter, so it masks the Handzus problem a bit.
Over the past several games though, things have gone from bad to worse. If it was possible, it seems that Handzus has lost yet another step, and Kane has been struggling to shoulder the load as the Hawks’ offense as a whole has ground to a halt. On Wednesday night though, head coach Joel Quenneville made his biggest stride yet in addressing the problem, skating both Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw in that spot.
Out of the two, it was Kruger who clearly made the biggest impact skating with Kane and Kris Versteeg, and Quenneville would be well advised to skate him in that slot more often, something he conceded to the media on Thursday:
The reasons to put Kruger in the second line center spot are legion. For starters, there is the speed that he brings to the game. On display frequently when he is on the penalty kill, Kruger has a great feel for the way a play is developing, and his ability to jump into passing lanes and aggressively attack puck carriers is something that has caught a lot of eyes, including those of Team Sweden’s brass when they selected him to play in the Sochi Olympics.
In addition to his raw speed, Kruger showed some really good hands and offensive awareness on Wednesday night. On one play in the second period, Kruger corralled the puck along the Ranger blue line, and in one fluid motion, fired a pass right onto the stick of Versteeg, whose deflection was barely stopped by Henrik Lundqvist.
Overall, Kruger pushed the tempo a lot more with his linemates (Saad also jumped in on that line occasionally, posing some huge matchup issues for the Rangers), and he exposed a lot of the flaws in Handzus’ game.
There's one other thing working in Kruger's favor: he has finally figured out how to take face-offs. Currently, he is tied for the team lead with Jonathan Toews, winning 56.8% of the draws he has taken this season. That mark is a mind-boggling improvement over his performance a year ago, where he only won 46.2% of his face-offs. That improvement can be attributed to several things, most notably working with face-off savant Yanic Perreault this season, but whatever the reason for the change in performance, the fact is that Kruger has become quite a weapon in that regard, and it has really opened things up for the rest of the offense to have a guy like that capable of winning key defensive draws.
Handzus is better suited at this point to being a fourth line center, and Quenneville could see some benefits if he demotes the center down in the lineup. The lower amount of ice time he would get in that spot would enable him to get involved on the penalty kill more (something he has still shown that he is proficient at), and that would be good for the team in multiple respects.
Handzus was brought in by the Blackhawks to be a guy who could win face-offs, play smart defensively, and chip in on the penalty kill. The way that the Blackhawks’ lineup shakes out right now, he simply isn’t capable of handling the role of a second line center in this system, and Quenneville should do the right thing and swap him out with Kruger in the lineup.