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How does Marcus Kruger’s return affect Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews?

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The potential for fewer defensive responsibilities means the Captain needs to get back to his scoring ways.

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Washington Capitals v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s a long, long summer and it’s starting to look like the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t going to make any serious moves in the near future, so let’s dive into another angle of last week’s trade that sent Marian Hossa’s contract and Vinnie Hinostroza to the Arizona Coyotes for a package of players that included old friend Marcus Kruger.

On Monday, we offered a reminder of what role Kruger handled during his first stint in Chicago as a harbinger of what he’ll likely be doing for the Blackhawks this winter. The short version is that Kruger will probably be handling the majority of the defensive zone faceoffs for the Blackhawks. The bigger question, and the point of this article, is how that affects Blackhawks captain and No. 1 center Jonathan Toews. The answer:

It should contribute to more offensive opportunities for Toews.

A common theme has been that Kruger’s return will take some of the defensive burden away from Toews, allowing him to thrive more on the offensive side of the ice. But that potential development could manifest in a slightly different way than anticipated.

One surprising area that didn’t change in Toews’ numbers during the 2017-18 season — his only season without Kruger since No. 16 joined the team — was how Toews was deployed for faceoffs. Based on the numbers from Corsica, there was virtually no change in where Toews’ handled faceoffs with Kruger (top three rows) and without Kruger (bottom row):

One player who was affected by Kruger’s absence last season? Artem Anisimov, who saw a noticeable leap in his defensive zone start percentage in 2017-18 (bottom row):

But where players line up for faceoffs when they take the ice is a small part of the story (and if you subscribe to Sean Tierney’s theory suggested in this January 2017 article from The Athletic, an overrated part because most substitutions in the NHL happen on the fly). A more important chapter in that book is who else is on the ice when they get there. And that’s where Kruger’s return could have a major benefit for Toews, who drew some of the team’s toughest assignments last season.

Using Natural Stat Trick’s handy “Shift Chart” tool, we can analyze what players were on the ice at the same time over the course of any game from the 2017-18 season. And digging into the home half of Chicago’s schedule, when coach Joel Quenneville had the last change and the ability to set the on-ice matchups to his preference, a trend emerged.

For example, there’s the January 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers when Toews’ shifts often matched up with Connor McDavid. There’s the January 24 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs when Toews’ shifts often matched up with Auston Matthews. There’s the February 8 game against the Dallas Stars when Toews’ shifts often matched up with Tyler Seguin. There’s the February 15 game against the Anaheim Ducks when Toews’ shifts often matched up with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. There’s the March 6 game against the Colorado Avalanche when Toews’ shifts often matched up with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. That seems like enough evidence to cross the line from coincidence to correlation.

But that correlation may not exist in the 2018-19 season, with the defensively responsible Kruger back in the fold and able to take on the opponent’s top scoring threat. This should free up Toews for more favorable matchups on the ice and give the Captain every opportunity to capitalize on the statistical rebound that every Blackhawks fan is wishing for after Toews’ season-long struggles from 2017-18.

Because if Toews can’t bounce back next season ... well, let’s just not go down that road in the middle of the summer.