A farewell to the under-appreciated Marcus Kruger

He was vital, even if the numbers didn’t show it.

We all knew it was coming, didn’t we?

No matter how many other moves the Hawks made that freed up salary cap space, it always felt like Marcus Kruger was on his way out of town. That his cap hit of just above $3 million was going to be too much for the Hawks to dish out to a bottom six forward.

On Sunday afternoon, Chicago traded Kruger to the Vegas Golden Knights for future considerations.

A few weeks ago, knowing the end was near for Kruger’s time with the team, I tried thinking back to the highlights during Kruger’s career with the Chicago Blackhawks.

And I started off by drawing a blank.

There was his triple-overtime goal against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference Final, which is still the longest game in franchise history:

But if I’m being honest, I didn’t remember that goal until I looked it up on YouTube. The only specific Kruger goal I remembered was this one from the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins:

The quickness of Kruger’s hands to get that puck from behind the goal line and into the net just ahead of a back-checking Patrice Bergeron is about the only offensive highlight I can recall from Kruger’s seven seasons with the team.

The offensive numbers were never that great for Kruger.

He peaked at 28 points in the 2013-14 season, scoring eight goals with 20 assists. His highest goal output in a season was nine in 2011-12 and he went without a goal while playing just half of the season in 2015-16.

But racking up points wasn’t his job.

No, the most important numbers that underscore his vital role with the Blackhawks are under the “Possession Metrics” label on Kruger’s page at the Hockey Reference website.

Specifically, the defensive zone start percentage (dZS%) column is where you’ll want to focus. This season, Kruger started shifts in the defensive zone 71 percent of the time during the regular season.

And that was his lowest mark in the last four seasons!

In reverse order, Kruger’s dZS% in the prior three seasons was 81.3, 75.9 and 79.1. Yet, in three of the last four seasons, he’s been over 50% in CF%. In the simplest terms, no one on the Hawks started 200 feet from his net more often than Kruger, yet he still managed to be on the positive side of the possession battle.

Now, as Sean Tierney detailed in his January article for the Athletic that examined Kruger’s shutdown role, the zone start numbers can be overrated, as the majority of players begin their shifts while changing on the fly.

But it’s been clear for the last four seasons that there’s no forward Joel Quenneville wanted on the ice more in those crucial defensive situations than Kruger. That carried over into the penalty kill as well, where no forward on the Hawks’ roster saw more time on the PK than Kruger. He led the team in shorthanded time-on-ice per game in five of the last six seasons.

And maybe that’s why I drew such a blank when I started thinking about offensive moments to highlight Kruger’s time in Chicago: there weren’t many.

That doesn’t diminish his importance.

It was Kruger’s fourth line sent over the boards by Q with 1:17 remaining in Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, just after the Hawks had tied the game at two. And when Kruger’s line made it a 3-2 lead, it was that same line back on the ice to help kill off the final 58.3 seconds to clinch that title.

Kruger’s line was also on the ice in the final minute of the Hawks Cup-clincher in 2015, albeit in a less stressful situation than 2013.

And moments like that should be the enduring legacy of Kruger’s time in Chicago. Whenever the Hawks needed defense, it was No. 16 being sent onto the ice for the draw. He handled a role that never put him in the spotlight. But his heavy lifting of the defensive tasks freed up his teammates to focus on lighting the lamp at the other end of the ice.

And make no mistake: his departure will leave a gaping hole in the bottom six for the Hawks. Replacing Marcus Kruger is not the same as replacing a typical bottom six forward. It’s replacing a player who took on some of the toughest assignments in the NHL each night. It’s the type of quiet service away from the spotlight that is crucial for a championship team.

And it’s what Kruger brought to the Hawks for seven seasons in Chicago.