Chicago Blackhawks’ Marcus Kruger-Andrew Shaw Conundrum

Mar 21, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw (65) and center Marcus Kruger (16) fall to the ice during the first period against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw (65) and center Marcus Kruger (16) fall to the ice during the first period against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

We’ve already talked at Blackhawk Up about another potential roster overhaul coming, this one as a result of the Chicago Blackhawks inking Marcus Kruger to a new, three-year deal on Tuesday. Frankly, some sort of overhaul was coming regardless of Kruger’s contract situation, but that really does cement it. The team now has about $65 million against the cap for the 2016-17 season with just 15 players signed (16 if you count Kyle Baun, and 17 if you count Bryan Bickell, who won’t be returning in any sane universe).

So that’s obviously an issue, but one General Manager Stan Bowman is clearly planning ahead for. By getting Kruger’s deal done now, he can spend the rest of the time between now and the end of the postseason planning his next moves to make sure the Blackhawks can actually ice a team next season. Some of his first decisions will come in the form of the Blackhawks’ free agents, among whom is Andrew Shaw.

Shaw holds a special place in the hearts of many Blackhawks fans. He’s a smaller guy who doesn’t back down from a challenge, he throws himself into the crease and into scrums and he’s been near or involved in some big plays during the last several years. His head-butt no-goal in the 2015 Western Conference finals added to that love, as have things like Shaw giving his teammates (namely captain Jonathan Toews) the business on Twitter and in the locker room, as well the picture of him carrying a boatload of beers to the dressing room after the 2013 Cup win.

But we’ve got to face reality here, folks. The chances of Shaw being a Blackhawk for the 2016-17 season are super slim after Kruger’s re-signing. Shaw is making $2.5 million against the cap this season, and since he could reach a career high for points (he’s at 31; his career best is 39 in the 2013-14 season), he’ll be due for a raise, no matter how many of those points were simply a result of lining up next to Toews and Marian Hossa. Not necessarily a significant raise, but when you’re looking at about $6 million in cap space (assuming the salary cap deviates little from $71.4 million) and need to fill more than two or three roster spots, some cuts have to be made.

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Shaw will very likely be among those. And, unfortunately, I think this is a big reason why there has been backlash against the Kruger deal. Yes, he’s getting overpaid in the grand scheme of things. Kruger is a third- or fourth-line center who primarily plays defense, and any offense you get from him is a bonus. His job is to get on the ice, block shots and turn the puck the other way, and he’s among the best in the league at achieving that. When Bowman parted with Phillip Danault in the trade that brought Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise to Chicago, that was pretty much the final straw in the “will Kruger stay or go after this season” debate.

The Blackhawks are placing a high value on strong defense and good centering work. The former is critical considering the team has struggled defensively this season, and that isn’t likely to improve moving forward. The Blackhawks have maybe one defensive prospect (Ville Pokka) making the jump from the AHL to the NHL next season, and guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson will be a year older with another heavy season on their legs. The money isn’t there to spend on major offseason improvements, either. Truthfully, re-upping Kruger makes fantastic sense from this perspective, even at an overpayment.

On the centering side, Kruger has shown an improved ability in recent seasons to win faceoffs at a “not as good as Toews but better than Artem Anisimov” rate, something that also proves useful. The Blackhawks have more or less decided on their four centermen moving forward with Toews, Anisimov, Teuvo Teravainen (who is due a new contract before the 2017-18 season) and Kruger, which is a comforting thought, even if it has left the wings relatively barren.

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Here’s the big thing about Kruger for Shaw: Kruger provides certain abilities that aren’t easy to acquire at the NHL level, while Shaw provides abilities that can be found in any number of players. Kruger is a rare forward who actually goes out, plays defense, flips the ice in his team’s favor and calls it a day. You’d be surprised how few guys can effectively do that night in and night out, both in the regular season and postseason. Shaw provides grit, a net-front presence (when he remembers to go there) and an emergency center option. As much as many of you may love Shaw for some of the reasons I outlined above, you can’t tell me those aren’t replaceable qualities.

It would certainly be disappointing to see Shaw go, but his possible departure shouldn’t be made out to be like the loss of Brandon Saad. It also shouldn’t be a reason to bash Kruger for getting somewhat overpaid, nor should it be a reason to slam Bowman, who we can healthily assume has a plan moving forward. For the long-term health of the organization, overpaying to have a guy like Kruger around makes more sense than overpaying to have a guy like Shaw around.