The challenge of determining Marcus Kruger’s value

There’s almost nobody like him, so how do you establish comparables?

In today’s NHL, a player is only as valuable as his cap hit. Patrick Kane is the reigning MVP, but he’s also paid like it with a $10.5 million annual charge to the Blackhawks’ books, which is tied for highest in the league with teammate Jonathan Toews. They’re exceptional players, but they’re also very expensive, which sounds about right.

Roughly two years later, GM Stan Bowman gave out another extension to a longtime forward, but it wasn’t nearly as lucrative. Marcus Kruger was a good soldier in taking a one-year deal as an RFA the previous offseason, so in the spring of 2016, the Blackhawks rewarded him with a three-year, $9.25 million contract.

But unlike a player such as Kane, whose value is made readily apparent through point production and ridiculous highlights, Kruger is a harder asset to peg down. He’s an incredibly rare beast in the current NHL, and that makes it difficult to decide whether he’s worth the $3.08 million cap hit he’s eating up.

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One thing we definitely know about Kruger is that he’s a true shutdown center. The Blackhawks depend on him to help anchor the penalty kill. As The Athletic’s Sean Tierney wrote in January, Kruger stands out as an effective possession-driving center despite a heavily defense-oriented role. He’s the kind of impact defensive player that a lot of others purport to be without having the numbers to back it up.

Kruger is also almost completely lacking in straight up comparables given his usage and effectiveness. There are very few players in the NHL who get used in such an unusual, extreme way like Kruger, and even fewer that actually perform well under those circumstances.

This season, Kruger has taken 73.8 percent of his non-neutral zone starts on the defensive end and posted a 49.5 percent Corsi during even strength play. It was above 50 percent most of the year, but just dipped below that mark recently due to a couple not-so-great nights. Still, here’s a list of every player in the last 10 years to match those numbers and play in at least 30 games in a season, via Hockey-Reference’s Play Index:

  • Marcus Kruger, 2016-17
  • Marcus Kruger, 2014-15
  • Joakim Nordstrom, 2014-15
  • Marcus Kruger, 2013-14
  • Brandon Bollig, 2013-14/

And we’re done. That’s three instances of Kruger, and two instances of guys who played with Kruger. Nobody else in the NHL has been used like Kruger without getting smashed into their own end most of the time.

This is where it’s hard to evaluate Kruger. With someone like Kane, you can take all his point production, stick it in a table, and compare it to all the other top-scoring wingers.  Sprinkle in a premium for winning some Cups, and some bad timing given the salary cap tanked not long after he signed, and you can see how they got to that number.

With Kruger, the path is a bit more difficult. Who do you compare him to when there’s nobody else like him? He’s clearly more valuable than the replacement-level bottom six forwards who put up poor possession numbers, but what about the guys who score more than him because they’re used differently? Comparing him to other defensive-minded players only works to an extent because most of them aren’t used to quite the same extreme degree as Kruger in even strength situations.

This is one area where scouting, and the “eye test,” become really important. The numbers can say a lot about how a player is used and how he’s performed, but watching a player is always the final piece to putting together the puzzle. Kruger always stands out as a fantastic player defensively, and the Hawks clearly showed how much they value him with his contract extension.

But in the offseason, the question of Kruger’s value is going to be a big one. The Blackhawks need to figure out how to stay below the salary cap with Artemi Panarin getting a big raise, and moving Kruger’s cap hit is going to be one of the prime options to ensure that happens.

There’s a chance that he’s left unprotected so Vegas could potentially claim him in the expansion draft, but if the Hawks want to recoup any value, they’d need to trade him. Again, that begs the question of what he’d actually be worth, and whether other teams will value him as a $3.08 million player when he has 32 points in his last 167 games.

All of it makes Kruger one of the more interesting cases on the Blackhawks. He’s so important to the system operated by Joel Quenneville that removing him would likely require some changes, simply because there’s nobody else who could eat up tough minutes like Kruger while posting respectable possession stats. His penalty-killing ability further adds to what makes him so difficult to replace. But he’s also a low-scoring forward who makes millions on a team with little flexibility, and that ultimately makes him more expendable than the guys who score the goals.

So what exactly is Kruger worth? It seems like we’ll get a better idea of that in the offseason.