First, it was Duncan Keith‘s knee. And while that only cost the two-time Norris Trophy winner 10 games, the most recent Chicago Blackhawks injury is far more severe.
Ultimate defensive center Marcus Kruger went down in last night’s win against Edmonton. When Kruger exits a game and doesn’t return, you know the damage is serious. More or less, he’s a Niklas Hjalmarsson lite (coincidentally, Hjalmarsson also went down in this game, but he returned).
We got the diagnosis today: a dislocated wrist. Kruger had surgery on the injury today, and he’ll be held out of hockey-related activities for the next four months as a result. Before the procedure was announced, the Blackhawks promoted center Phillip Danault from Rockford, hinting that Kruger’s injury could be serious (it obviously was).
Danault probably would have been on the Blackhawks’ Opening Night roster if not for hip surgery prior to this season. Throughout the 2014-15 season, he suffered pain from a previously-torn labrum, and he decided he couldn’t hold off surgery any longer. The 22-year-old has played in just six games for the IceHogs this season, scoring a goal and adding an assist.
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The Blackhawks’ first-round draft choice in 2011 (26th overall) is easily one of the most-prized, if not the most-prized, prospect in the Blackhawks’ talent pool. As players have been siphoned off around him for rentals to help the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups since his drafting, Danault has stuck around. A key reason for that: he’s a center. And up until this season, the Blackhawks didn’t have that bona fide No. 2 center. (We can argue all day about Brad Richards filling the spot, but that wasn’t abundantly successful).
Now, Danault is ready for his shot. The thing is, the Blackhawks now have their No. 2 center in Artem Anisimov. While the line Anisimov is on, with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane, has seen ample success this season, Anisimov himself has had some struggles. Still, I don’t think Danault is going to be supplanting Anisimov as 2C right off the bat.
However, I think Danault is here to stay long-term. I don’t see this as an audition like we witnessed with Vincent Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman earlier this season. You could say the obvious reason for that is Kruger’s long-term absence, but there’s more to it than that.
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Here are Danault’s combined stats from the previous two regular seasons in Rockford: 142 games, 19 goals, 45 assists, plus-31 rating. That goes with five points in eight playoff games in the 2014-15 season. The plus/minus rating would suggest Danault is either used more in neutral-zone or offensive-zone situations, or that he can turn play back up ice despite being used in defensive-zone situations. Joel Quenneville is likely hoping it’s a little of both, because I can see him wanting Danault to become a regular bottom-six forward for the next several years to come.
Danault’s offensive trajectory is a little more positive than that of Kruger, but they’re not terribly far apart. And Danault is built almost similarly to Kruger — they both check in at 6-foot-0 and are separated by about 15 pounds in weight (Danault is heavier at 201). With Jonathan Toews and Anisimov seemingly set at the 1-2 spots for the time being (utilizing Anisimov in a defensive role when he’s only winning 44 percent of his draws wouldn’t be wise anyway), Danault has the chance to be an offensively-capable third-line center who’s thrown on to the ice in all situations.
At the outset, Danault will probably see more offensive-zone time. Dennis Rasmussen, the latest call-up before Danault, is currently at 11.25 percent for fraction of offensive- versus defensive-zone starts, according to war-on-ice. The closer that number is to zero, the closer you are to starting on the ice in all situations. Will Danault’s number be that high? The answer depends on whether Q wants to insert Danault with Andrew Desjardins and Ryan Garbutt, or if he wants to place him between Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell. There’s always the option that Danault winds up a wing for Shaw, but let’s just throw out that horrible-sounding scenario.
So what does it mean beyond his initial impact, specifically when Kruger returns? We all know Kruger was the toughest Blackhawk to bring back last offseason, as Stan Bowman had trouble clearing cap space for a fair medium-term deal for Kruger, who wound up on a one-year contract. If Danault shows well enough, and Rasmussen shines moving forward as well, the front office could see Kruger as expendable. But at this point, Danault will probably be given more chances than most call-ups to stick with the big club, as he’s been playing for this in Rockford for parts of the last five seasons. He’s been bred to take on a major role with this club, and he’s seeing his opportunity to grab it.
What it boils down to is this: Danault could be a stronger offensive version of Kruger, and Q is probably hoping that’s the case. Therefore, there’s a very good chance Danault won’t see a Rockford bus again for a long time — unless he has a horrible run immediately upon coming up. I feel, however, that we’ve reached the Phillip Danault era in Chicago.