The Chicago Blackhawks have had an uncharacteristically active offseason.
Coming off of their third championship in six seasons, even the casual NHL fan would know this. However, there is one box yet to be checked on Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman’s summer to-do list: re-sign restricted free agent Marcus Kruger.
With the Blackhawks searching for a second-line center, and facing a loss of multiple defensemen, Kruger’s contract situation was immediately pushed to the back-burner nearly as soon as the Blackhawks finished their championship celebration.
Ironically enough, it was the contract situation of a fellow RFA, Brandon Saad, that solved the first problem; before he could be signed to a monster offer sheet by another team, the Blackhawks dealt his rights to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a pair of promising prospects, as well as proven center, Artem Anisimov. Anisimov was signed to a five-year contract extension just a matter of hours later, and arguably the Blackhawks’ biggest worry was wiped clear.
The weeks dragged on into what seemed like an impossibly long summer, and Johnny Oduya remained a free agent, while Patrick Sharp remained a Blackhawk. In the space of two days, both players had joined the Dallas Stars, and the Blackhawks’ vision for defense, as well as wingers, looked a little clearer.
Now, there are only 20 days until the Blackhawks take to the ice again for their 2015-16 training camp. If nothing changes until then, Marcus Kruger will not be on the ice, or in the stands.
With Jonathan Toews, Anisimov and Teuvo Teravainen manning the top three lines from the center position, the Blackhawks’ top-nine looks fairly certain. However, with Kruger still unsigned, the future of the ‘Hawks fourth unit looks anything but clear.
It has been almost a given in Blackhawks’ circles this summer that Kruger will be re-signed, and for good reason. Kruger has left no doubt in fans’ minds that he wants to return to the ice a Blackhawk next season. Just 11 days ago, as he spent the day in Slovakia with the Stanley Cup, Kruger told ESPN Chicago this:
"“Right now I just try to focus on getting in the best shape I can be in a month from now. That’s all I can do. Then, I think everything else will sort out. I love playing hockey. I know I’m going to do that. We will see what happens, but I’m not too worried about it.”"
Anyone who has watched the Blackhawks over the past three seasons would know that Kruger wants to be a Blackhawk just as much as the Blackhawks should want Kruger to be one of them.
Not only is No. 16 a reliable offensive contributor for his role, he is a multi-faceted hockey player: He kills penalties, is solid in the faceoff circle and holds his own defensively. When Michael Frolik (now with the Calgary Flames) left the Blackhawks for the Winnipeg Jets in the summer of 2013, many wondered how the Blackhawks’ penalty kill would fare without him. Over the two years since Frolik’s departure, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill has killed off 83.4 percent of its opponents’ powerplays, which is a respectable 10th league-wide. One can only imagine how the Blackhawks’ PK would fare without Kruger leading the way.
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So, is it time to worry yet?
Yes, and no.
In the 11 days since Kruger was quoted saying the above, his mindset has undoubtedly not wavered a bit. He waited through the summer for Stan Bowman to assemble the rest of his team, and just because the calendar creeps closer to the start of training camp, does not mean he no longer wants to be a Blackhawk.
However, some teams in the league may want to change that. A team like the Carolina Hurricanes, for example, who are starved for talent and have money to spend, could easily shoot Kruger an offer sheet. His championship experience, coupled with moderately low asking price, make Kruger an interesting possibility for several teams in the league.
If that happens, the Blackhawks would be in a situation where matching the offer sheet could put them in a salary-cap crunch all over again, or Kruger could walk for nothing.
Ask most Blackhawks fans, though; they will still honestly tell you they think Kruger will be re-signed. If Stan Bowman’s past moves are any indication, Kruger could be re-signed tomorrow, without so much as a whisper in the days or hours before. Bowman has a knack for keeping half-finished business under wraps, and this contract situation may be no different.
With only three weeks to go until the Blackhawks take to the ice, stay on your toes, because a Marcus Kruger contract could be coming down the pipe at any minute.
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