It may not quite be the role he’d prefer, but Marcus Krüger is happy to fill the important task of fourth-line center and regular penalty killer for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 22-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, now in his second full NHL season, has teamed up with Czech left winger Michael Frolik to comprise a formidable penalty-kill pairing, as well as two-thirds of a fourth line that provides the Blackhawks with superior depth.
One key to Chicago’s historic hot streak to start the season, jumping out to a record-tying 13-0-3 record, has been its ability to roll four lines consistently. That has allowed stars like Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to remain fresh while providing opportunities for defensively-conscious players like Krüger, who can also create offence.
Despite a somewhat slow start that saw him record just one assist through the first nine games, Krüger has picked up the production lately, compiling three goals – including two game-winners – and five points over the last seven contests.
“I think that’s what the coaches wanted, everyone to contribute everywhere, and being on a line that they can trust and rely on in all situations,” said Krüger, who has also registered an impressive +5 plus/minus rating over the last seven games through Feb. 19.
“We’re just trying to work hard and play our game, just play like we know we can. We have good players out there – Fro is a good player, he’s scored a lot of goals in this league, so we just get everyone to try to play their game.”
“I think that responsibility. We can trust them out there as far as being in the right spots,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “They anticipate well. That line has had some really good shifts against the other teams’ top lines. And with that trust factor, when they’re out there, you can really complement that four-line rotation idea that we’re trying to implement. The thing that we like about our team this year is that our depth is going to be valuable and we’re proud of it.”
Joining forces with the 24-year-old Frolik, another player who excelled offensively in Europe but has adapted to a more limited role in the NHL, has benefited Krüger.
“We try to talk a lot and help each other out there,” Krüger said of Frolik. “Especially at the start of the season, it’s important to get that going, because that can help you win games. It doesn’t change too much because we’re the fourth line, we just have to play our game.”
“He’s from Europe like me, so I think we found a little bit of chemistry,” acknowledged Frolik, a former first-round draft pick (10th overall by Florida in 2006) who has established himself in Chicago as a valuable two-way contributor. “He’s a smart player and we like to talk about the game, what we’re going to do and get in the mindset where we want to roll four lines. And especially in the short season, it’s important that everybody’s going to be part of the team.”
Following a solid performance as an NHL rookie in 2011-12, Krüger spent the NHL lockout this fall at AHL Rockford and that appears to have aided his development. After registering nine goals, 26 points, and a +11 plus/minus rating in 71 games last year in Chicago, the 6-foot-0, 181-pound Krüger embraced the increased responsibility he was entrusted with in the AHL. In 34 games, he accumulated eight goals – five on the power play – and 22 points, while converting on one of two shootout attempts.
“I got to play in all situations down there and I think it helped to keep me in shape,” Krüger said of his time in Rockford. “It’s a good league down there, too. I got to play in all the situations - power play, 5-on-3, 3-on-5, all of that stuff, so that was good for me.”
That resulted in a more mature Krüger than the one who left Chicago after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.
“Playing down there I think helped him beginning the year with us,” Quenneville said. “One thing with Krugs is he’s very predictable because he anticipates so well. He’s positionally sound, his awareness is there, he’s competitive in the puck area. He’s got a real good hockey mind and I think that complements his game.”
“Obviously, with more experience you get more comfortable and for him, I think it was a good thing to play in the minors during the lockout,” added defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson, Krüger’s teammate both in Chicago and on the 2012 Swedish World Championship team. “I think he protects himself a little bit better out there. I can see that he’s more aware of where all the players are on the ice and he’s more comfortable with the puck and doing great penalty killing.”
Representing Sweden at the past two World Championships, coming away with a silver medal in 2011, has also provided Krüger with valuable experience. Skating in front of his hometown fans in Stockholm during the 2012 tournament added to the thrill of pulling on the Tre Kronor jersey.
“To get a chance to play for your country in your hometown, that was special, of course,” said Krüger, who recorded three goals, including two game-winners, and two assists in eight games as Sweden finished sixth last May. “We had a good time there. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring our best game in the playoff, we went out too early. It’s a high level of good players and it’s always special to play for your country. That’s something I love to do.”
With the 2013 Worlds back in Stockholm (and also in Finland) from May 3-19, Krüger is excited for his hometown.
“It’s going to be a good time for the city and for the fans, too,” said Krüger, who also played two-plus years for Stockholm-based Djurgården, helping them reach the Elitserien Final in 2010, before coming to North America. “It’s going to be almost summer there, so we’ll probably go out to Djurgården, sitting out there for dinner or maybe just go for a walk there. It’s a nice stop.”
Of course, Krüger, who lists his favourite Stockholm restaurant as Villa Godthem (“That’s a nice spot that I’ve been to quite a bit”), hopes to be unavailable for this year’s tournament because that would mean the Blackhawks were still participating in the NHL playoffs.
And while he’d love to see more ice time than the 12:47 he was averaging through 16 games, Krüger understands he still has room to grow before fulfilling a more offensive role in Chicago.
“You always want to play in that role and play as much as you can, but I play where the coach wants me to and I try to help the team as much as I can,” said Krüger, Chicago’s fifth-round selection (149th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft. “Maybe on the fourth line, you have to play a little more defensive, but I still try to play my game. I try to take more pride learning PK and educating myself in that role too, so I can do everything.
“That’s what I want to do, be able to play at both ends. I want to get better every day and hopefully I can bring it to the next level.”