The circumstances surrounding the arrival of center Marcus Kruger late in the 2010-11 season set up the young Swedish import for scrutiny that was unrealistic as well as completely unnecessary.
Chicago GM Stan Bowman admitted that Kruger came into a tough situation last spring in his remarks to the media Friday. The head scratcher is that Bowman created that situation himself.
Kruger, the Blackhawks’ fifth-round draft selection in 2009, made an impression on the club in Chicago’s prospect camp and, according to Bowman, had a shot at making the team last fall. This prompted Bowman to sign Kruger to an entry-level deal. Kruger then chose to return to the Swedish Elite League, where he had played 53 games in his first two seasons as a professional.
Whether Kruger didn’t feel ready for the rigors of the NHL or simply wanted to cash some more SEL paychecks, Kruger returned home. Playing in 52 contests, he led sixth-place Djurgardens IF in scoring. Seems like Bowman misjudged that situation as well, but it’s what happened in the spring with which issue can be taken.
With the Blackhawks scuffling for a spot in the playoffs and Dave Bolland out with concussion symptoms, Bowman approached Kruger’s agents. Kruger’s SEL squad was facing an early exit from their playoffs and would be available to join the ‘Hawks organization.
Djurgardens IF lost their first-round series in seven games (prophetic?), and Kruger was whisked across the Atlantic mere days after Patrick Sharp also went down.
Here’s where Bowman made things more difficult for himself.
He might have done well to state the obvious, which was that the Blackhawks were taking advantage of Kruger’s availability to fill a spot created by Sharp and Bolland being out. Then he could have brought up Kruger or let him get his feet wet in Rockford with no expectations other than getting a look at a young prospect.
Instead, he insisted that the injuries to Sharp and Bolland had nothing to do with Kruger’s recall to the Blackhawks. Bringing up Kruger was what had been planned all season.
Bowman’s statements were tough to swallow even as he made them. How could it be the plan when he had no idea how long Kruger would be committed to the SEL playoffs?
How could Bowman have thought that bringing up a 20-year-old European prospect and tossing him into the tail end of a frantic playoff push was a sound plan?
Actions spoke louder than words in this case; Kruger played in seven regular season games, taking a seat the second Sharp returned to the lineup. Kruger did play in five playoff games, largely as a replacement for Tomas Kopecky at wing.
Words told us that Kruger would have been in the lineup regardless. Actions told us that he was only playing because of injuries.
Kruger didn’t play terribly in his short stint with the club, showing some moxie in the corners if not the strength or frame (he’s listed at 5’11” and 172 pounds going into camp) to keep from getting knocked around there. Kruger is far from proficient in the faceoff circle, and the ‘Hawks drastically limited the time he spent there. He showed flashes of the heady play that has drawn attention of scouts on both sides of the Atlantic. As a young prospect in his first action, there was a lot to like in his game.
As a difference maker on a squad bent on making the playoffs, however, it was clear that he wasn’t quite ready for the responsibility. He certainly wasn’t ready to make the impact at center that was needed at that point of the season or what had been implied by Bowman. Kruger, who in fact spent time on the wing in the playoffs, may have benefited more by skating in Rockford the last two weeks.
Ben Smith’s call up and subsequent success with the ‘Hawks brings up another question.
Was it sound thinking on management’s part to think a player with limited experience with an NHL rink and Kruger’s numbers in the SEL (six G, 29 A, plus-12) was so much more impressive than Ben Smith’s AHL totals (19 G, 12 A, minus-three) that we immediately needed him in the Chicago lineup?
Smith came up with little fanfare and became the darling of the playoffs. He didn’t skate circles around Kruger, who wound up with a lone assist in the 12 games he skated with the Blackhawks, but of course Bowman heaped far greater expectations on the Swede.
Kruger, who returned home to put up three points on the way to earning a silver medal for Sweden in the World Championships, is a promising prospect. He may someday be able to showcase his skills in NHL rinks on a nightly basis. He seems to have a leg up on a spot in the middle of one Chicago’s forward lines coming into camp.
Patrick Sharp’s appendectomy ensures that Kruger will see plenty of time centering some of the big names in the pre-season. Kruger has maintained the stance that he is in North America to play in the NHL. It looks as though he may very well do that this season. However, there may be a legitimate question concerning Kruger and his immediate future in the organization.
From a development standpoint, Kruger may be best off starting the season in Rockford, where he can skate big minutes and adapt to hockey on this side of the pond in a less critical atmosphere. Conversely, Kruger stands to take a huge pay cut by logging a full season in the AHL.
With no guarantee of being on the NHL roster last season, Kruger stayed home in Sweden. Would he do the same thing if faced with a trip west on I-90? More importantly, would this attitude affect the Blackhawks’ thinking as to where he winds up?
Kruger can render such concerns invalid by showing that he’s ready to handle the workload on the second, or possibly the third line. If he fails to sew up a job out of camp in those spots, it will fall on Bowman to convince Kruger that he should confine his 2011-12 skating to this continent, whether it’s done in Chicago or further west.