Hockey is known as one of the fastest sports on earth, and a player’s fortunes can change just as quickly. Less than a year ago, Marcus Kruger was playing for Djurgarden in his native Sweden, still viewed as a top prospect in the Blackhawks’ organization. Flash-forward to the present, where not only has he made good on his pro potential, but has earned top-six minutes centering a line that includes All-Stars Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
For many young prospects this would be a daunting assignment, but Kruger isn't shirking from the challenge.
“You always want more responsibilities, no matter where you play in the lineup,” he says. “You want to contribute and earn more playing time. I’ve been given a chance, and I have to keep building on that.”
Despite Kruger’s relatively rapid ascend up the lineup, it wasn’t always easy for the 21-year-old. When the Stockholm native was recalled with just 29 games to play in the 2010-11 season, it took time to learn not just the North American game and Joel Quenneville’s system, but also to cope to life in Chicago and learn his way around the Blackhawks locker room.
“[The transition] wasn’t easy,” Kruger admits, “but the locker room is full of great players and nice people. It was easier for me to talk to the other Swedes on the team when I first got here, but all of the guys have helped me a lot. They made me feel welcomed.”
“It was a tough situation to come in like that,” teammate and fellow Swede Viktor Stalberg says. “He definitely had talent, but Marcus had to learn the system and get confident. He needed to get a little bigger and stronger, but you can build that – you can’t grow your hockey sense. For a young guy, he’s a really smart player, and he’s shown that on the ice.”
That natural hockey IQ is also what caught the Blackhawks coaching staff’s attention last season, where Kruger was given meaningful ice time during the Blackhawks’ playoff series against Vancouver.
“I know that we liked the way he played – even going back to Game 7, he was one of our top guys,” Quenneville says. “From watching him in camp, we feel he’s got good potential. But he’s really progressing well here, and I like his quickness too.”
Kruger had high hopes to make the Blackhawks out of training camp, but he opened the 2011-12 season in the AHL. He was recalled in time for Chicago’s second game of the season, but he says that his reassignment gave him some perspective on his career.
“It was hard to be sent down, but I appreciate being up here even more now,” Kruger says. “When I first came here, the game was different, and the players were better. But it made me improve my game and work to get better.”
He’s a very keen player. Marcus is always... paying attention to what’s going on. That’s not a characteristic that everyone has, especially at this young of an age.” - Steve Montador
That work ethic is how Kruger is most often defined by his teammates. Whether during practice, watching video or even during a game, he is often found to be studying other players for ways to improve his own game.
“He’s a very keen player,” says defenseman Steve Montador, who often shares a power-play unit with Kruger. “Marcus is always observing other players in practice and paying attention to what’s going on. That’s not a characteristic that everyone has, especially at this young of an age.”
“You can learn from anyone,” Kruger says simply. “Everywhere you look in this locker room is another really talented player, so it’s up to me to watch everything that they do and learn what I can. Everyone does something well, and by studying them, you make your game better.”
With those added skills has come a greater sense of confidence, both on the ice and in the dressing room.
“We’ve definitely seen it,” says Jonathan Toews. “From training camp, you could tell he’s got that confidence back, and that’s a lot of pressure for anyone to just come in and play in the situation he was in last year. But I think he’s finally gotten his feet under him, and he’s got a lot of patience with the puck. He’s gotten an opportunity on special teams, and he’s shown that he’s one of those guys you can rely on.”
“I’ve seen him grow now that he’s gotten more time on the ice,” Montador says. “He’s become a little bit more vocal in the dressing room with the other guys. He’s a soft-spoken guy, but he’s a smart kid, and he’s been opening up a little bit more. You want kids like that to know that they belong and feel like part of the group.”
And in turn, that confidence in his game has led to even more responsibilities. In addition to his new second-line center duties, Kruger has also been utilized on both the power play and penalty kill. Through Sunday’s game against Calgary, Kruger has tallied 10 points (3G, 7A) and is averaging about three minutes per game on special teams.
“He controls and gets a lot of pucks in tight areas,” Quenneville says. “The thing that caught our attention was his patience and play recognition in the offensive side, and playing with top guys, we’ll see if that can come out even more.”
Given all of these new responsibilities, however, Kruger doesn’t see his game changing too much. After all, he’s gotten to where he is by being confident in his own skills.
“I know I’m playing with some very talented guys, but I have to do my best to support what they’re doing,” he says. “I have to be smart with the puck, be responsible on defense and make plays when I get the chance.”