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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  • cliffkoroll

    Great stuff as always John. Kane at center is intriguing, but I guess I’m not seeing it as more than temporary.

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  • jkoz485799

    When you speculate on the line combinations, it was mentioned that Hossa would be able to play with Toews because he’s a left-handed center. It’s also mentioned that Kane would need a defensively responsible forward on his right wing. That being the case, it would make the most sense for me to have Hossa on Kaner’s wing. This would solve both Hossa needing a left-handed center and Kane needing a defensively responsible winger. I only say this because Frolik and Bolland seem to have great chemistry, so putting Frolik on Kane’s wing doesn’t make sense. The top 3 lines would be:

    Brunette/Sharp-Toews-(Anyone really, maybe even a rotating position going with the hot hand)

    Brunette/Sharp-Kane-Hossa

    Bickell-Bolland-Frolik

    • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

      @jkoz485799 I think you’re right on and Q’s lines at practice yesterday confirm this. Unfortunately I wrote my article prior to that and my mind was still stuck in “Kane’s not a center” line mode where many have suggested Sharp(C)-Kane(RW) and Toews(C)-Hossa(RW). Taking a step back, your suggestion and what Q went with makes a heck of a lot more sense.

      Ultimately, the point still stands. If Kane is moved to center, he will likely struggle with the larger defensive responsibility. Any player would be prone to some sort of learning curve. Even though Kane centered in juniors, he’s never done it at the NHL level.

      Kane is a lot of things, but I think it’s unfair of us to expect he’ll develop into a defensively responsible center. His line will have to score a lot of goals to make up for that.

      Thanks for commenting jkoz.

      • jkoz485799

        It’s funny, I had an article with the details from practice showing Kane with Hossa and Brunette open, but hadn’t read it when I commented. I mainly wanted to point out that Kane solves the Hossa needs a lefty problem. I agree that Kaner will most likely struggle with the defensive responsibility of the 2nd center position. I really don’t think it’s going to last very long, but without having much hockey to talk/think about, I’m more than happy to discuss the possibilities. On one side (the rational side) we think Kane can’t handle defensive end and this won’t see the light of day in the regular season. To play up the other side, I’m sitting here thinking about it, and it also may not be too big a problem. We all know how much Q loves his matchups. With this test configuration, you’d think on most nights he’ll try and get the Bolland line against the other team’s top line and Toews against the other team’s 2nd line. This would mean Q would be able to try and get Kane and Hossa against 3rd line talent for a decent amount of the game. The possibilities are almost mouth watering of having our 2 scoring lines powered by the combination of Toews/Sharp and Hossa/Kane. Teams with only one solid D pair and shutdown line would be given fits. Again, I don’t think it’ll work, but I certainly understand why the brass would like to try it out.

    • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

      @jkoz485799 And jkoz, isn’t it interesting how the rotating LW dilemma would then flip to the right side. One possible downside is that you’re now plugging natural LWers into the RW slot. Most of them are pretty versatile though (Stalberg, Olesz) so this probably isn’t a big issue. Should be interesting how this plays out.

      • jkoz485799

        @ChicagoNativeSon I completely agree on both accounts. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how it plays out. I see the top RW position being our revolving door as the top LW position was last season. I like the idea of Stalberg, Olesz, and Smith all getting a shot at it. I probably overrate Stalberg a bit, but he seems to have all the tools to succeed. He’s fast, big, and has a nice wrister. If he can be consistent, he could be the answer. I don’t know much about Olesz yet, but he hasn’t seemed terrible in the preseason so far. I’m hoping he’s the kind of guy that will flourish a bit now that he’s got better talent around him. We saw in a small, but important, sample size that Smith has some talent as well. It’s funny, but with this pretend configuration, he’s probably either on the 1st or 4th line.

    • cliffkoroll

      @jkoz485799 Sharp-Kane-Hossa. Hmmm… If I recall, Sharpe got some Selke talk a few years back as a winger.

      Toews can drag a couple schlubs around and be formidable.

      So crazy it might work.

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