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New line of work suits the Blackhawks’ Marcus Kruger

Chicago Blackhawks v New Jersey Devils

Chicago Blackhawks v New Jersey Devils

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The facts: 7:30, CSN, 720-AM.

Updated: April 30, 2012 9:47AM

When Jonathan Toews finally returns from the concussion that has sidelined him for 17 games, coach Joel Quenneville will have to decide on the role of Marcus Kruger.

The Blackhawks have relied on Kruger for long stretches this season after he rebounded from a disappointing training camp that ended with a trip to Rockford.

The 21-year-old rookie, who has seen time as both a top- and bottom-six forward as well as stints on special teams, has anchored the second line between Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg down the stretch.

That versatility and his ability to make responsible decisions with the puck — as well as the fact that he is one of just three natural centers on the roster — afford Quenneville options when it comes to where to play him.

“Kruger has done a real nice job as far as playing in that [second-line center] role, [as well as] playing the penalty kill, playing the power play. He’s been effective,” Quenneville said. “You appreciate his quickness and his possession as well.”

Kruger did have a scare after suffering concussion symptoms following a hit early in the Hawks’ 2-1 win March 21 over the Vancouver Canucks that forced him to miss the rest of the game as well as the next.

But Kruger played 19:46 Tuesday in the Hawks’ 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils and said the injury was not a concern.

“I felt pretty good right away [after the injury]. It was nothing too serious,” Kruger said. “I didn’t feel 100 percent and we just wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

The one drawback in Kruger’s game is that he doesn’t shoot enough.

On a line with Sharp (263 shots) and Stalberg (190), there aren’t a lot of shots to spare. But there’s no way Kruger should have 24 fewer (85) than Michael Frolik in seven more games (66).

This is where Patrick Kane enters the picture. Faceoffs aside, Kane has shown he’s more than capable of producing at center.

With a career-high 73 takeaways (eighth best in the NHL) on the season and 11 points — including three game-winning goals — during a recent 12-game stretch, there’s no question Kane’s skills translate to the middle of the ice.

“This stretch here where he’s been at center, he’s taken his game to a different level as far as his pace to his game, his speed through the middle of the ice, his puck possession,” Quenneville said. “… He’s really elevated our team game.”

It’s easy to imagine a scenario similar to the beginning of the season when Quenne-ville opted to play Kane at center on the Hawks’ second line and dropped Kruger to the fourth line.

It would allow the Hawks to spread their top-end talent over two lines and give them a formidable middle with Toews, Kane, Dave Bolland and Kruger.

At the moment it’s just something to think about. But when Toews returns, it appears to be a viable option for Quenneville and one Kruger would happily accept.

“This time of year you have to get better as a team every game,” Kruger said. “We want to first of all make the playoffs and after that be prepared for the playoffs if we make it. I want to do what it takes to do that.”

NOTE: The Hawks assigned goalie Carter Hutton to Rockford.

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