Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville stated Thursday that Swedish-born center Marcus Kruger will get a chance to play alongside Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg on the second line. Kruger saw time with Kane and Versteeg in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers Wednesday night.
Veteran center Michal Handzus has been playing on the second line, but with minimal results. Handzus has played 58% of his time on the ice with Kane. When playing 5-on-5 hockey (equal strength), Chicago’s leading goal scorer has zero with Handzus. (s/t Extra Skater)
Even worse, Handzus is only seeing approximately 30% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, where the second line is more likely to start after stoppage in play. The Slovakian native is still a serviceable center, but not with one of the league’s top scorers. Another log on the con-Handzus fire is his selection to the Slovak national team for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The 36-year old will be logging important minutes for as long as the Slovaks remain in the round-robin hockey tournament.
A move to the fourth line for the regular season will cap his minutes while letting him take important defensive zone faceoffs. The Chicago Blackhawks traded for him prior to the 2013 NHL trade deadline for that primary purpose. When the playoffs come and the game becomes more defensive-minded, that is when Handzus can be reinserted into the second line to bring a complete two-way game.
The defensive-minded Kruger has taken 50% of his faceoffs in the defensive zone. On the season, Kruger has won 56.8% of his totals draws, a marked improvement over his 2012-13 percentage of 46.2. The 23-year old also has 18 points on the season, 8 more than Handzus. Yes, Handzus has played in less game due to injury, but Kruger has spent more time in his own zone than the opponent’s.
Kruger has also shown an ability to find the open winger in the offensive zone with his passes. His 14 assists this season are three behind his career high of 17 in 2011-12. It took him 71 games to notch those helpers in a similar role to what he has been playing now.
Kruger’s big edge over Handzus is speed. All too often, Handzus has been unable to keep up with the speedy Kane and Versteeg, causing issues offensively and in transition to defense. Kruger has plenty of speed to burn and could use the new-found ice time to show he can play upwards of 17:00 minutes per game. Kruger was selected to the Swedish national team for the Winter Olympics, but will play more of the fourth line role he has with the Hawks on a very stacked team.
Fan of it or not, coach Quenneville has finally budged on his stubborn defense-offense combinations on his scoring lines. The savvy veteran will give way to the young center with an ability to establish a two-way game leading into the prime of his career. If the swap works, the search for the elusive second center for the Chicago Blackhawks can be put to bed, for now.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @skcih_ffej for more sports and entertainment ramblings. If you play fantasy sports, check out The Fantasy Fix, where Jeff covers your add/drop/watch needs during baseball and hockey season, and does weekly podcasts, as well.Follow paulmbanks