Hawks turn to Kruger as second-line center

CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is trying someone different at second-line center again.

After using Brandon Saad, Brandon Pirri and Michal Handzus there at different times since training camp, Quenneville said Thursday he planned to give Marcus Kruger a shot at the spot.

Quenneville flipped Handzus and Kruger from the second and fourth lines during the second period against the New York Rangers on Wednesday, and liked what he saw. The Blackhawks’ second line has hit a rut lately, accounting for one goal over the last five games.

Quenneville said Kruger would skate with the second line, which has also consisted of Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg in recent games, in practice on Friday and would probably remain there for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.

“I know he’s had a couple looks as we’ve gone along the last couple years,” Quenneville said of Kruger. “We’ll see. I know he did a pretty good job last night as well. He does bring pace to his game. I think the finish is something he doesn’t necessarily produce at that rate you’d look at a second-line center, [but] you play with a guy like Kaner a lot of things can happen.”

Kruger wasn’t campaigning for the opportunity, but he admitted he would like to play there.

“You always want to play as much as you can and help the team,” Kruger said on Thursday. “If he chooses I should play there, I’ll play there. I’m happy to play there for sure. Playing with those guys is kind of fun. That’s something I want to do for sure.”

Kruger’s role with the Blackhawks has often been more defensive whether he’s been on the penalty kill or on the fourth line, but he believes he’s capable of doing more with the puck. He has four goals and 14 assists in 46 games this season. He had 13 points in 47 games last season and had 26 points in 71 games during his rookie season.

“I’ve been playing more defensively here,” Kruger said. “Like my game back home wasn’t really like that. When I came over here, that was my way to help the team. If they want me to do that, I’ll do that. You just try to play and help the team as much as I can.”

The 23-year-old Kruger has made himself a more valuable player to the Blackhawks and helped in his selection to the Sweden Olympic team by improving his faceoffs this season. He went from winning 228 of 493 faceoffs for a 46.2 percentage last season to winning 273 of 481 faceoffs for a 56.8 percentage this season. He’s tied for eighth in the NHL in faceoff percentage.

Quenneville said he’s seen growth in a lot of areas.

“He’s been a real nice fit for our team,” Quenneville said. “You appreciate the energy he brings. You like the consistency he brings, the reliability on both sides of the puck. I see improvement in his game.

“You got to commend him on his practice habits. He betters himself because he works so hard in practice. He brings it off of that to the games. He’s had a real nice progression to a young career. It looks like getting picked to the Swedish team is a great compliment, but I think he’s got that will to find a way to contribute any way he can. I think he’s moved up the ladder in a lot of people’s eyes particularly in this locker room.”