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Updated: January 9, 2014 10:52PM
Sounds easy enough. Just hop over the boards, give Patrick Kane the puck, let him do his thing, and watch your point total skyrocket.
Easiest job in hockey, right?
“I don’t know if Kaner really needs much help,” winger Kris Versteeg said. “I’ve played with some very good players, but none as talented as him.”
But the fact is, it’s a tricky thing to play on a line with Kane. His otherworldly talent and puck-handling abilities, combined with his uncanny vision and touch, require a different mentality from his linemates. Kane needs a center who is happy to defer to his right wing, to think defense first while Kane freelances all over the ice. Yet he also needs a center who can read Kane’s mind well enough to be in the right place at the right time to receive a pass or pounce on a well-placed rebound.
“It’s a little bit different, because he wants the puck all the time,” Michal Handzus said. “So you want to try to give him the puck all the time. You’ve got to be careful not to over-think that, but, obviously, he can make something from nothing. There aren’t a lot of players, if any, in the NHL like that. You can just pass him the puck and he usually does the rest.”
That’s been Handzus’ job for most of the season, aside from a stretch in late October and early November in which Brandon Pirri got a crack at it, before Hawks coach Joel Quenneville decided he wanted more of a reliable defensive presence in the middle. But Handzus — who filled the second-line center role admirably in the playoffs, albeit while Kane was on the top line — has been struggling lately, and perhaps has been bringing the once red-hot Kane down with him.
Enter Marcus Kruger — a guy with the speed to keep up with Kane, the defense-first mind-set to balance the line, and the selflessness to let Kane do what Kane does.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Kruger, who was bumped up to the second line Wednesday night against the Rangers and will get another crack at it Saturday in Montreal. “He wants the puck, and he’s probably the guy we want to have the puck the most, too.”
Quenneville said he was wary of Kruger’s lack of a finishing touch — the 23-year-old has just 17 career goals in 171 games, though he’s largely been used in a checking and penalty-killing role. But Kruger always has said there’s an untapped offensive side to his game, and said Wednesday night, “I definitely want to play in that role.” He had a couple of stints on the second line last year when Dave Bolland was injured, and certainly didn’t look out of place.
His vastly improved faceoff percentage — a team-best 56.8 percent this season— works in his favor, as well.
“He’s been a real nice fit for our team,” Quenneville said. “I appreciate the energy he brings, the consistency he brings, the reliability on both sides of the puck. I see improvement in his game. … I think he’s got that will to find a way to contribute any way he can. I think he’s really moved up the ladder in a lot of people’s eyes around this locker room.”
Kruger replaces Handzus, a reliable and savvy defensive presence whose lack of speed made for a sometimes awkward fit with Kane. For all the good things Handzus brought to that line — the pass-first mentality, the defensive awareness, and the size to clear some room for Kane — he sometimes simply couldn’t keep up. Much of the time, Kane was a de facto center whenever the Hawks had to back out of the zone and regroup, while Handzus waited at the blue line like a winger to start the rush.
Still, Kane said the chemistry between the two was “good.”
“He makes it easy, as far as playing defense and kind of just roaming out there,” Kane said.
But the fact is, most of Kane’s production during his torrid November and December came without Handzus on the ice. Handzus hasn’t assisted on any of Kane’s goals, and Kane has only assisted on one of Handzus’ goals. The line’s been particularly ineffective over the last two weeks. Kane has just one assist in the five games since his 14-game point streak ended.
“The last couple games, I don’t think I was at my best,” Handzus said. “I need to get back at a level that I can help the team more. If I play well, I can distribute the puck to Kaner and then make room for him a little bit and then play more defense. If I get the puck on defense and give him the puck in the neutral zone, then he can do his magic.”
The plan remains the same. But, for now, it’ll be Kruger trying to put the puck on Kane’s stick, and trying to put Kane in the best position possible to produce. It’s a highly coveted job. But as the Hawks continue their never-ending search for a long-term solution at second-line center, it’s becoming clear that it’s not as easy as it looks.
“Anytime you play with different players, you’re going to try to play to their strengths,” said Kane, who’ll be adapting to his fifth center in less than 12 months. “You’ve got to play to their strengths and try to implement your strengths in there, too, to be successful as a line. Sometimes you have to switch it up as a player.”