Hawks ready to put Kruger to the test

Even if Dave Bolland hadn’t been knocked out of the Blackhawks’ lineup with a concussion, Marcus Kruger was coming as soon as his team was eliminated from the playoffs in the Swedish Elite League.

That’s how much the Hawks and general manager Stan Bowman think of the 20-year-old center, who made his NHL debut in Wednesday night’s 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers at the United Center.

“We’ve been thinking for a while watching their team’s progress, and when they fell behind in the first round we began to work through his agent and get some of the details worked out,” Bowman said Wednesday. “Then as soon as they were eliminated he made it clear he really wanted to come because he felt he was ready now.”

That wasn’t the case last summer when the Hawks wanted Kruger to be at training camp, thinking he could make the team.

“We were hoping we were going to have him after our prospect camp last summer,” Bowman said. “He was really impressive and we actually put the full-court press on and had Niklas Hjalmarsson try to change his mind, but he’s a very determined guy and he had it in his mind a year ago he that he needed to spend one more year in Sweden. He wanted to play over there because he didn’t think he was quite ready.”

Ready or not, Kruger is in the NHL now and was thrown into the fire of the burning Western Conference playoff race.

Kruger centered the Hawks’ third line for Troy Brouwer and Bryan Bickell and played a shade under 12 minutes with 1 shot and 2 hits.

“It’s just hockey, like back in Sweden,” Kruger said. “Obviously it’s a smaller rink and a different game, but I can only play my game and do as good as I can.

“I try to play two-way, play smart and be a player you can rely on and do smart things out there.”

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was impressed with what he saw from Kruger.

“I think he’ll only get a little more comfortable with how we play,” Quenneville said. “He’s aware positionally and his instincts are high end. Putting it all together, it was a good start for him.

“We kind of told him just trust your instincts and play your game. We tried to go over the systems, but at the same time play hockey. One of his overall strengths is his hockey sense. There’s some upside to his game and just looks like he wants the puck.”

Kruger showed some grit and drew his first penalty for holding late in the third period.

“We’re not expecting him to come in and take things over,” Bowman said. “If he can come in and contribute in any way it would be nice.”

Kruger has plenty of skill. He was the youngest forward to crack the top 20 in scoring in Sweden’s top pro league with 35 points in 52 games playing for Djurgardens.

“There are many great players here,” Kruger said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully, I can learn from them and do good.”

Marcus Kruger
Chicago Blackhawks forward Marcus Kruger, left, keeps Florida Panthers right wing Evgeni Dadonov away from the puck during the second period of their NHL hockey game on Wednesday, March 23, 2011, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)