Jason Brough

Chicago Blackhawks' Marcus Kruger (16) works with teammates before an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Chicago, Tuesday, Oct.1, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Under Pressure: Marcus Kruger


This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

Now that Bryan Bickell has moved on, expect more attention to be paid to Marcus Kruger‘s contract in Chicago. The 26-year-old center is about to start a three-year, $9.25 million extension, and he’s coming off a season in which he had no goals and just four assists in 41 games.

To be fair to Kruger, he wasn’t really signed for his point production. He’s more of a defensive forward. In fact, no Blackhawks forward averages more time than he does on the penalty kill. He also missed 41 games after undergoing wrist surgery in December, and that’s a tough injury to come back from.

Still, for a cap hit of just over $3 million, a bit more offense is expected. In 2013-14, he had 28 points in 81 games, so he’s proven he can do it.

Next season, it’s possible that Kruger could start on the third line with Marian Hossa on his wing. Head coach Joel Quenneville apparently liked that combination in the playoffs against the Blues, even though Kruger finished the postseason with just one assist in seven games.

“Obviously, playing with a guy like that, it can’t get much better than that,” Kruger said, per The Athletic. “He’s an unbelievable player. That doesn’t change too much how I prepare for the season. Obviously (it’s) motivating hearing that I might get a chance to play with him. He’s been so good for so long. He’s such a great player.”

Of course, to whom much is given, much is required. So if Kruger does indeed get a chance to skate with Hossa, he knows he’ll be expected to be more than defensively responsible. He’ll need to put up the odd point, here and there.

Kruger will also have the advantage of suiting up for Sweden in the World Cup, playing with and against the best players in the game, something he called a “perfect way to start the season.”

We’ll see if all of the above helps Kruger get off to a productive start. If not, that contract of his may prove to be a rare blunder by GM Stan Bowman, a la Bickell’s.

Poll: Are the Blackhawks in better or worse shape than last season?

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 23: (L-R) Patrick Kane #88, Andrew Shaw #65 and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrate Shaw's third period goal against the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Blues 6-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

The case for ‘better’:

Chicago’s biggest issue last season was solved by the signing of Brian Campbell. Once again, they’ll have four top-four defenseman, with Campbell joining Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. That means less pressure on Trevor van Riemsdyk, who maybe wasn’t ready for a top-four role but should absolutely be fine on the bottom pair. Long story short, the Blackhawks’ defense has gone from a weakness to a strength.

Meanwhile, there’s been way too much made about the losses of forwards Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andew Ladd. After all, there’s still Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Artemi Panarin. And besides, the NHL is a young man’s game, and the ‘Hawks have youngsters Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, and Nick Schmaltz knocking on the door. That group should provide a great boost of energy and enthusiasm, and they’ll do it for cheap.

The case for ‘worse’:

If the NHL is a young man’s game, then the ‘Hawks should be worried, not excited. That defense that apparently got so much better? Campbell is 37 years old, Keith is 33, Seabrook is 31, and Hjalmarsson is 29. The biggest concern is Seabrook, who has five years left at a cap hit of $6.875 million; his possession numbers were awful last season, and that’s not a good sign.

As for the forwards, none of the youngsters mentioned above have proven they can play in the NHL. Schmaltz, arguably their top forward prospect, may be an NHLer one day, but he only just turned pro. Chances are, he’s going to need some AHL time. Make no mistake, losing Shaw is going to hurt badly. He was a huge part of the 2015 Stanley Cup run, a hard-nosed contributor in whichever role he was handed. And let’s not forget about Marian Hossa, who will be 38 when the 2017 playoffs start. His production fell off a cliff last season, no real surprise given his age. And you don’t just replace a guy like Hossa in the top six.

OK, time to vote:

(Click here if the poll doesn’t show up for you.)

Looking to make the leap: Nick Schmaltz

TAMPA, FLORIDA - APRIL 09:  Nick Schmaltz #8 of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks celebrates after the championship game of the 2016 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships at Amalie Arena on April 9, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.The North Dakota Fighting Hawks defeated the Quinnipiac Bobcats 5-1 to win the national title.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

When the Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues on April 25, Andrew Ladd, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, and Dale Weise were all in the lineup.

Today, all four of those forwards are with other clubs, and that means opportunity is knocking for a number of Chicago prospects, including 2014 first-round draft pick Nick Schmaltz.

Schmaltz, 20, turned pro in June after helping the University of North Dakota win a national championship. He had 46 points (11G, 35A) in 37 games in 2015-16, the third most points on the team behind Vancouver first-rounder Brock Boeser and Edmonton signee Drake Caggiula.

“I think Nick’s got some dynamic skills, similar to Teuvo in a lot of ways,” said ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman, per The Athletic.

And Schmaltz definitely sees the opportunity.

“They have salary-cap issues so they need younger guys to play,” he told NHL.com. “I think it’s a great time [to turn pro], and I think a lot of young guys are going to be in the NHL this year. Hopefully I can work for a job.”

So, what are his chances?

Well, looking back to when Schmaltz was drafted 20th overall two years ago, there was nobody who questioned his talent, but some who wondered about his consistency.

“Top 10 in talent, if you talk to the scouts,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie during the broadcast, “but the range we had for him is he could go anywhere from No. 10 to No. 60, because he’s a real in-and-outer. … Sometimes you show up and watch this kid play and he’s the most dominant offensive player on the ice, other nights you go and he doesn’t do anything at all.”

Schmaltz has since spent two years developing in college, his production jumping from 26 points as a freshman to, as mentioned, 46 points last season. But it’s feasible that it may now take some time to find that consistency at the pro level.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other youngsters in the ‘Hawks organization with their eyes on a roster spot next season, including Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, and Mark McNeill, all of whom have at least played at the AHL level. It’s possible Jimmy Vesey could be there, too.

The one thing we know for sure is it’s going to be a very interesting training camp.

“The opportunities are there for these guys to step forward and show us which guys can [play],” Bowman told NHL.com. “I think it’s dangerous to try and label guys to fill [certain roles]. It’s probably unfair to them. One thing I told all those guys was, ‘I’m not sure which of you guys is going to make the team, but don’t make the decision easy for us.'”

Goaltending was a rare bright spot for Vancouver last season

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 10: Goalie Jacob Markstrom #35 of the Vancouver Canucks during NHL action against the Colorado Avalanche on April 10, 2014 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

The Vancouver Canucks finished with the third-worst record in the NHL last season, and there were a lot of reasons why.

Goaltending was not one of them.

In fact, on a lot of nights, if not for Ryan Miller or Jacob Markstrom, things could’ve been a lot worse. Miller finished the season with a .916 save percentage; Markstrom’s was .915. The way the undermanned Canucks defended at times, those numbers were more than acceptable. Only the Ottawa Senators allowed more shots per game (32.8) than Vancouver (32.5).

Markstrom’s performance was an especially pleasant surprise for the Canucks, who’d made the decision to trade fan favorite Eddie Lack to Carolina during the previous offseason. Markstrom was coming off an excellent 2014-15 campaign in the AHL, but had yet to prove he could play in the NHL. He’d cleared waivers on his way to Utica, a sign of how far his stock had fallen since his days as a top prospect with the Panthers.

In 2015-16, Markstrom started 30 games for the Canucks, his solid (sometimes spectacular) play earning him a three-year contract extension that has him tied to the club through 2019-20. On at least one occasion last season, he downright “stole” a game for his team.

“It was a good year for me, personally, and it was a tough year for…obviously it’s never fun to lose hockey games and last year we lost way too many of them,” Markstrom said in July. “As for right now, when I look back, I feel like last year…it felt like a tease. I can’t wait to get going and get started.”

Miller, meanwhile, just turned 36 and has one year left on his contract. It remains to be seen if Vancouver will pursue an extension. While the Canucks have an excellent prospect in Thatcher Demko, he only turned pro in April and will likely need more than one year of AHL seasoning. An important part of the future, Demko won’t be rushed into the NHL.

As for next season, the Canucks are hoping to make it a little easier for Miller and Markstrom. Injuries to key veterans like Brandon Sutter, Henrik Sedin, Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis certainly didn’t help things last season. While Hamhuis has moved on to Dallas and may be missed, big Erik Gudbranson has been added, in large part for his crease-clearing ability.

“We’re going to play with more structure defensively this season,” said GM Jim Benning. “I feel we’ll be strong up the middle defensively. We’re hoping that cuts down on the miraculous saves.”

Because while spectacular saves are nice to watch, too many of them can be a symptom of a big problem.

Related: Canucks re-sign Bachman, a goalie to expose in the expansion draft

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks attends round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

It was only an online survey, and barely 200 people responded. But the results did not flatter Vancouver general manager Jim Benning. Out of all 30 NHL teams, readers of The Hockey News had the least confidence in the front office of the Canucks.

It did not help that the survey’s findings were released just a few days after the Canucks had been fined for tampering. At the draft in Buffalo, Benning had spoken about Vancouver’s interest in Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban, two players who were property of other NHL clubs. While the league accepted that Benning had “intended no harm with his comments,” it still cost the club $50,000, not to mention a good amount of embarrassment.

Of course, Benning’s biggest sin, if you ask his critics, has nothing to do with talking too much. No, his biggest sin is an unwillingness to accept that the Canucks are no longer a playoff team. An unwillingness, essentially, to tank.

Since Benning arrived in the summer of 2014, Vancouver has not gone through a tear-it-down rebuild like we’ve seen in places like Toronto and Buffalo. Instead, the Canucks have tried to remain competitive while getting younger at the same time.

And though they were far from competitive last season, finishing 28th overall — their worst season since the Mike Keenan era — Benning insisted that injuries were the biggest reason for all the losing.

“In my heart, I really believe if we’d had Brandon Sutter the whole year and Alex Edler didn’t get hurt, we’d be right there,” he told the Vancouver Sun in late February, at which point the Canucks were all but officially eliminated.

And so Benning went to work. His two biggest offseason moves were acquiring defenseman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with Florida and signing winger Loui Eriksson in free agency.

While Gudbranson is still young, just 24 years old, and Benning has said he expects the former third overall draft pick to be in Vancouver for the next decade, the fact the Canucks surrendered well-regarded 20-year-old forward in Jared McCann plus the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft was more evidence of the club’s reluctance to bottom out.

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” Benning said. “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

The key phrase there: “right now.”

Certainly, Eriksson was not signed for three or four years down the line. He just turned 31 and is expected to skate with the Sedin twins, who turn 36 in September and have two years left on their contracts. The decision to not trade a player like Jannik Hansen, who just turned 30, is another one that a rebuilding club might not make.

“We’re not moving Jannik,” Benning told The Province recently. “I thought he was excellent for us last year and with the way the game is going with speed and skill, he fits that description perfectly. And we have him under a good (cap) number the next couple of years, so we’re not looking to do anything.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the direction that Benning has chosen (and there’s something to be said for trying to maintain a culture of winning), there’s no denying he’ll be under considerable pressure next season. If the Canucks don’t improve — and they’ll need to improve rather dramatically to get back into the playoffs — it will be a lot harder to justify his “right now” moves.

At least with tanking, losing is part of the plan.