Blackhawks Prepare Kruger's I-Pass, Patrick Kane At The Center Of It All

 

Kruger follows the action from the bench. Yup. (photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

As many of you know, I’ve already stated that Marcus Kruger probably won’t make this year’s team to start the season. Possibly he’ll be up for a couple of games if Patrick Sharp isn’t ready on day one, but in my opinion, even that is unlikely.

After last night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, Kruger’s chances of making the team now “officially” look doubtful. Per Adam Jahns, here’s what the Blackhawks had to say in regards to Kruger.

From Stan Bowman:

“Letting him see a full training camp [and] getting used to the players, the coaches can see what he can do when he’s had time a whole training camp,’’ general manager Stan Bowman said. ‘‘We’ll see how it goes. I don’t look at it as, ‘Can he do this one specific skill?’ As a centerman, Marcus is going to have to be reliable at both ends of the rink.’’

And from coach Quenneville:

“I thought he played better as the game went on, and I think he’s been OK this camp,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He can make plays and sees plays. But I think the quickness thing and the strength thing is something he’s going to have to improve on.”

Not quite the ringing endorsements. Make no doubt about it, the Blackhawks’ spin machine is running full tilt, and their objective here is to make you believe that desperate times require desperate measures.

The nail in the coffin here is Q’s comment regarding “quickness” and “strength.” When a coach suggests a player is having difficultly adjusting to the quickness of the game at the NHL level, it almost always implies time in the AHL. Basically what Q is saying is that the Swedish Elite League, when compared to the talent-level needed on a Stanley Cup contending team, isn’t all that “elite.”

But when a coach also plays the “lack of strength” card, it spells doom because it suggests a lack of physical (and often mental) maturity. It sounds like the Hawks wanted Marcus Kruger to beef up over the offseason and as we have have seen, he didn’t do that. Despite having a high hockey IQ, Kruger got thrown around like a rag doll during last year’s Vancouver series. That problem continues. If strength is already an issue, then a 4th line spot doesn’t seem in the cards either; a tandem of Smith and Mayers would suit that role better.  Add to this the fact that Kruger has been outplayed by 20 year old Brandon Pirri during the preseason and that spells a one-way ticket to Rockford.

And if you don’t think all the above factors have Kruger dead and buried, when asked about the possibility of Frolik centering the 2nd line, Quenneville instead suggested Patrick Kane (from Tracey Myers):

“We might try that,” he said of his right winger, who is healed after having left wrist surgery back in July. “He’s been playing center throughout scrimmages and practices now and we’ll see.”

When asked if Kane was good with that possibility, Quenneville said, “he’s not complaining.” Quenneville said Kane has enough of a well-rounded game, including on defense, to give it a try.

“Defensively he’s gotten better as he’s grown in that position with us, down low on the walls,” Quenneville said. “It’s something we’re going to at least take a look at.”

Patrick Kane at center? Crap, not only did they hand Kruger his bus ticket, it was a one-way seat under the chassis.

But are we reading too much into all this? No and yes.

No, because it would take two amazingly impressive games from Kruger and some heavy duty damage control for the Hawks to un-spin last night’s comments. Kruger is as good as gone. And yes, because unless the Kane experiment produces instant results, it’ll last less than a full game, just like during the 2008 preseason when Savard tried Kane there. That time it lasted one period – and Savard was a more patient coach than Quenneville.

Let’s look at the possibility anyhow and what effects it has on the top lines.

First, let’s define a typical center’s responsibilities. Kane already does a lot of what a center is supposed to do in the offensive zone, so that’s why the idea has some merit.

  • O – Fast skater, able to cover a lot of ice – check
  • O – Gifted passer, good stickhandler, high assists player – check
  • O – Good ice vision, creative playmaker – check
  • O – The play “goes through” him – check
  • O – Secondary support along the boards, in puck battles – check
  • D – Outlet guy, often leads the breakout – check
  • D – 1st forward back on defense, pressures the puck-carrier
  • D – Strong backchecker
  • D – Defends the slot
  • O/D – Takes draws – no freaking way

Those last four items on the list are some of the biggest reasons why Kane is winger and not a center. Can Kane get back on D quickly? Of course he can, but that’s never been in doubt. Is he a strong backchecker? Again, when Kane wants to backcheck, he can be highly effective. The problem with these first two items is that Kane has never shown that he can be consistently relied upon to handle these responsibilities.

The last two are the biggest issues. In the defensive zone the center is asked to cover the greatest amount of ice. Kane can cover a lot of ice, but the problem is that one of those areas the center is expected to cover is the slot. Kane isn’t that guy and never will be. Plus, covering the slot can be physically demanding and puts Kane in the line of fire on shots from the point. I have no idea how Kane would fare at the dot, but in what universe would you want to put his surgically-repaired wrist at additional risk?

Second, the obvious. Moving Kane to 2nd line center leaves a void at RW on the top two lines, but it does allow Marian Hossa to play with a left-handed center who can get him the puck, Jonathan Toews. Other solutions solve that problem, but we’ll ignore them for now. Sharp and Brunette are the obvious LW’s, so your top two lines would start out like this:

Brunette/Sharp – Toews – Hossa
Brunette/Sharp – Kane – ???

If you’re going to make the drastic move of putting Kane at center, then you better damn well put someone on his wing who can do something with the puck. Brunette isn’t that guy, but Sharp is. Many believe Sharp and Kane have good chemistry, so this would put that theory to the test and leave us with this:

Brunette – Toews – Hossa
Sharp – Kane – ???

That 2nd line isn’t looking very defensively responsible, plus you’ve opened up a hole at RW where the Hawks don’t have a lot of options. There’s only one player on the Hawks roster who has proven to be the solid two-way player needed there, Michael Frolik.

I’ve said in the past that Frolik will likely get a look on the 2nd line, but this formation would jettison him there. That line, although small, might have success in the offensive zone, but it would probably be an adventure on D. Sometimes that trade-off works, but the fact of the matter is that Sharp would still have to take on center responsibilities in the defensive zone.  Since Kane already plays like a center in the offensive zone and Sharp has proven to be the best option at center, why try painting stripes on a leopard and spots on a tiger?

What this exercise shows though is that the Blackhawks don’t necessarily need a playmaking center for the 2nd line; when separated, Kane and Toews can provide all the playmaking that is required. What they need is solid two-way player. A player who is capable of taking on the centerman’s duties in the defensive zone. If Kruger or Pirri can’t be that guy, the Hawks will need to make a move prior to the trade deadline. They have the cap space to do so and the time is always “now” to make moves for a potential Cup run.

The Kane experiment is simply that, an experiment. Moving Kane to the pivot would only be a move in name since he already does, and will continue to do, the things most centers do in the offensive zone. The words of StanBow and Q tell us more about the fate of Marcus Kruger and that their mid-summer dreams of filling that void from within the system are turning into nightmares. The Hawks have the talent and depth to make-do and succeed during the regular season, but an upgrade is needed at some point to improve their odds of winning a second Cup in three years.

Tags: Brandon Pirri Center Chicago Blackhawks Marcus Kruger Patrick Kane Patrick Sharp Rockford

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