Marcus Kruger stepping up in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Chicago has needed more from Kruger during the past couple weeks, and he’s delivered some strong performances.

The Blackhawks’ depth chart unsurprisingly got shook up with the back injury to No. 1 center Jonathan Toews. Over the past few weeks, Artem Anisimov, Marcus Kruger and Vincent Hinostroza have had to lead the way up the middle, putting Chicago in a much different spot than when its captain is healthy.

Kruger got a seven offensive zone starts in the Blackhawks’ 1-0 loss to the Rangers on Friday, which is emblematic of the changes coach Joel Quenneville has been forced to make. That’s a season-high for Kruger, who usually eats up loads of defensive zone starts as Quenneville plays his line matching games. The Swedish center had just seven offensive zone starts total in the first eight games of the season.

So this has been a bit of a different role for Kruger, and the results have in many ways been positive. As a prospect, Kruger was actually considered a talented offensive player, so his evolution into someone with just 28 points during the past 151 games has been a little surprising. However, it’s undeniable that the way the Blackhawks have chosen to use Kruger has had an impact there, even if you get into a “chicken and egg”  debate of sorts when it comes to how his usage impacted his development.

Asked to play a more offensive role over the past nine games with Toews, Kruger has done an admirable job. He’s recorded a goal and two assists, been solid on faceoffs (50.8 percent success rate), and helped drive possession like he’s always done. This season, his 5-on-5 Corsi is 51.9 percent, up from a career-low 48.4 percent a season ago.

The past few games have been a big part of that increase. Since Nov. 25 against the Ducks — Chicago’s first full game without Toews — the Blackhawks have taken 118 shots and allowed 94 shots with Kruger on the ice during 5-on-5 play. That’s a Corsi of 55.7 percent, which would be second on the Blackhawks (behind Artemi Panarin) if he put that up all season. The Hawks have also been dominant in scoring chances, leading 63-34 with Kruger on the ice since Toews went down.

The overall result has been pure dominance: seven goals for, zero against.

That’s precisely what the Blackhawks need from Kruger, and it helps show where his impact goes beyond goals and assists. There are a lot of other useful things hockey players can do on the ice, and Kruger is masterful at helping tilt the ice. When he’s doing that with more talented players in a role that doesn’t mean he’s starting off in the defensive zone more often than not, he can be a catalyst on offense.

Kruger’s $3.08 million salary cap hit may seem high at first glance — and I’ve certainly questioned whether he meets that value — but the past couple weeks have helped show why the Blackhawks were willing to extend him at that price. They also could help show other teams why he’s worth trading for (or picking in the expansion draft) if Chicago decides it can’t keep paying a bottom-six center that much next summer.

Until we get to those challenging decisions, let’s just appreciate Kruger playing some very good hockey.