Updated: December 24, 2013 10:27AM
If Marcus Kruger is taking a faceoff, chances are, it’s an important one. It’s probably in his own zone. It’s often against the other team’s top center. Much of the time, it’s shorthanded. Win that draw, and the Blackhawks can flip the ice, kill some clock, and even generate some chances of their own. Lose that draw, and the puck could be in the back of the net within four or five seconds.
As the man in the middle of the fourth line — which, on the Hawks’ deep roster, is actually the checking line — nearly every faceoff carries some weight.
“Most of them are in the [defensive] zone,” Kruger said. “So you really want to make sure you win it.”
Last year, as good as Kruger was as a defensive force and a penalty killer, each faceoff was a dicey proposition. He won just 46.2 percent of his draws, 71st in the league. This year? Under the tutelage of Yanic Perreault — one of the best faceoff men in NHL history — Kruger has turned himself into one of the best in the league, currently ranking 10th. He’s winning 57.1 percent of his faceoffs — with his percentage consistently between 56.8 and 5.75 at home, on the road, shorthanded and even strength — adding one more defensive weapon to his arsenal that might just land him a spot on Sweden’s Olympic team.
“Give him some credit,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who has continued to give more responsibility and more ice time to Kruger’s line with Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith. “He’s bearing down, I think he’s gone down to the science of it.”
That means breaking down film of opposing centers and learning their tendencies. That means getting to know the various officials and how each one drops the puck. That means working on leverage and positioning and grip. And that means getting some help from your wingers on the 50/50 pucks that can be the difference between a goal against or a breakout the other way.
It’s a small facet of the game with big consequences, and it took Kruger some time to appreciate that, and to act on it.
“When I came over here [from Europe], it was a big difference from what I was used to,” he said. “It takes a little time to adjust. Yanic’s been good, he’s been really good. We work a lot during practice, so that helps. It’s gotten better and better, but it’s still an ongoing process. You have times where you struggle and you’re going to have days when it just feels good. It’s something you need to work on every day to be at a high level.”
Because of the nature of his role, the 23-year-old Kruger doesn’t have terribly flashy numbers. Through 39 games, he has four goals and 11 assists, solid but unspectacular. Yet his versatility and defensive style make him an intriguing possibility for Team Sweden. Olympic rosters will all be announced by Jan. 7, and Kruger is still hoping to make it.
“I want to play in the Olympics for sure,” he said. “The biggest thing you can play for is your country. That’d be really something.”
The possibility of joining fellow Swedes Niklas Hjalmarsson (a lock) and Johnny Oduya (a likely choice) in Sochi is tantalizing for Kruger, and he admitted that the three talk about it from time to time. But he knows the only way to get on that team is to do well on his current team.
And every facet he can add to his game — penalty killing last year, faceoffs this year — makes him that much more valuable to both.
“We all know that it’s coming up here,” Kruger said. “But there’s not much you can do, really, except playing your best hockey here. Then things like that are going to sort themselves out.”