– It was an odd move, to say the least, when the Chicago Blackhawks added 20-year old Swedish rookie center Marcus Kruger
for the final stretch of the regular season.
Yes, the defending Stanley Cup champions have a rookie starting goalie in Corey Crawford
. Yes, they also have a 19-year old rookie defenseman in Nick Leddy
. And, yes, earlier this season they even had 19-year old rookie forward Jeremy Morin
taking shifts on the second line.
Chicago also hasn't been shy from calling up young players as needed from Rockford of the American Hockey league. But even by those standards, the addition of Kruger was out of the ordinary – coming from Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League straight to Chicago's third line.
"None of us really saw it coming," said Swedish forward Viktor Stalberg
, who only knew of Kruger through his younger brother – a teammate of Kruger's on the Swedish national team a few years ago. "But we've got faith that (Hawks management) felt he was more ready than anybody in Rockford at the time, so it makes sense when you look at it that way."
It also makes more sense when you look at the situation Chicago is in while center Dave Bolland
recovers from a bad concussion and leading goal-scorer Patrick Sharp
sits with an injured knee.
The Hawks are locked in a fierce battle for a playoff spot in the tight Western Conference race – currently in seventh (88 points) just a point ahead of Saturday's opponent, the Anaheim Ducks, in the eighth and final spot. Chicago had to do something to make up for those two injuries – especially Bolland, who was hurt by a blow to the head on March 9 and hasn't shown much progress since.
Unable to add depth at center before the trade deadline, Chicago General Manager Stan Bowman instead looked deep within his own organization to help replace Bolland's grit on defense and playmaking ability on offense.
The answer was Kruger, who impressed at the Blackhawks prospects camp last summer.
Kruger, a fifth-round pick by Chicago in the 2009 Entry Draft (No.149), opted to play in Sweden this season despite having signed an entry-level contract with the Hawks last June and being invited to training camp.
It turned out to be a good decision, as Kruger had a strong season while getting the majority of his time on Djurgardens' top two lines. Kruger finished the season with 6 goals, 35 points and a plus-12 rating in 50 games; he was the youngest forward among the Swedish Elite League's Top-20 scorers.
Now he's in the NHL trying to help the Blackhawks secure a playoff spot. He comes into Saturday with one game under his belt after centering Bryan Bickell
and Troy Brouwer on the third line in a 4-0 win against the Florida Panthers on Wednesday.
"I was happy with it," Kruger said of his first game, in which he didn't record a point, dished out two hits and recorded a shot on goal in 11:37 of ice time. "We won the game, and that's the most important thing. I'm happy just to be here and help the team any way I can. It's a lot different than back home, but I did my best and the guys helped me."
They also helped him in practice on Friday, while off the ice he's leaning on Swedish teammates Stalberg and Niklas Hjalmarsson
. On the ice, Bickell said Kruger's first game should be considered a success – all things considered.
"He was asking a lot of questions, and me and Brouwer helped him out as much as possible," said Bickell, who is still considered a rookie himself. "There were times coaches were yelling out lines and he didn't know whether we were going or not. The coaches can get confusing sometimes back there, so just to learn the systems and how it goes on the bench and on the ice is a big learning experience. He did well. We just need to get him ready for (Saturday's) game and come prepared."
Kruger's doing his part -- he was the last one off the ice during Friday's practice and said he'll be more ready for the Ducks than he was for the Panthers.
Asked to compare the style of play in the NHL to that of the Swedish Elite League, Kruger said it's a big difference.
"It's more North-South hockey here and you have to be aware all the time and quicker, so you can take the puck to the right places," said Kruger, who won a bronze medal with the Swedish national team at the 2010 World Junior Championships. "That's what I'm going to take to the next game."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will be pleased if he does, but was also happy with what he saw from Kruger away from the puck on Wednesday. Quenneville liked Kruger's positioning and instincts, and he knows there are plenty of tools to use with the young center based solely on the scouting reports.
"A lot of guys saw him over there in Sweden this year," Quenneville said. "We knew that he was handling elite-level competition and I think there are certain things you admire about the kid. Defensively you can put him in all situations and offensively he had some numbers quietly that surprised a lot of people how productive he was. There's some patience to his game offensively with the puck."
The same can't be said of the Blackhawks, when it comes to Kruger's development curve.
They had a pressing need at center and are trying to fill it with an inexperienced rookie – albeit one with lots of upside. That probably says something about Chicago's confidence in its own scouting and development departments, but Quenneville thinks it says more about Kruger.
"I think you've got to give him the credit for putting himself in the position to get the chance," he said.
As for what will happen with Kruger should Bolland progress faster than expected?
"We'll see," Quenneville said. "But it's nice having those type of options."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent