Sounds easy enough. Just hop over the boards, give Patrick Kane the puck, let him do his thing, and watch your point total skyrocket.
Easiest job in hockey, right?
“I don’t know if Kaner really needs much help,” winger Kris Versteeg said. “I’ve played with some very good players, but none as talented as him.”
But the fact is, it’s a tricky thing to play on a line with Kane. His otherworldly talent and puck-handling abilities, combined with his uncanny vision and touch, require a different mentality from his linemates. Kane needs a center who is happy to defer to his right wing, to think defense first while Kane freelances all over the ice.
Yet he also needs a center who can read Kane’s mind well enough to be in the right place at the right time for a pass or a well-placed rebound.
“It’s a little bit different, because he wants the puck all the time,” Michal Handzus said. “So you want to try to give him the puck all the time.”
That’s been Handzus’ job for most of the season. But Handzus — who filled the second-line center role admirably in the playoffs, albeit while Kane was on the top line – has been struggling lately, andperhaps has been bringing the once red-hot Kane down with him.
Enter Marcus Kruger – a guy with the speed to keep up with Kane, the defense-first mind-set to balance the line, and the selflessness to let Kane do what Kane does.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Kruger, who was bumped up to the second line Wednesday against the Rangers and will get another crack at it Saturday in Montreal. “He wants the puck, and he’s probably the guy we want to have the puck the most, too.”
Quenneville said he was wary of Kruger’s lack of a finishing touch (just 17 career goals in 171 games, though he’s largely been used in a checking role). But Kruger always has said there’s an untapped offensive side to his game, and said Wednesday night, “I definitely want to play in that role.”
His vastly improved faceoff percentage – a team-best 56.8 percent – works in his favor, too.
“He’s got that will to find a way to contribute any way he can,” Quenneville said. “He’s really moved up the ladder in a lot of people’s eyes around this locker room.”
Kruger replaces Handzus, a reliable and savvy defensive presence whose lack of speed made for a sometimes awkward fit with Kane. For all the good things Handzus brought to that line – the pass-first mentality, the awareness, the size to clear room for Kane – he sometimes simply couldn’t keep up.
Still, Kane said the chemistry between the two was “good.”
“He makes it easy, as far as playing defense and kind of just roaming out there,” Kane said.
But the fact is, most of Kane’s production during his torrid November and December came without Handzus on the ice. Handzus hasn’t assisted on any of Kane’s goals, and Kane has only assisted on one of Handzus’ goals. The line’s been particularly ineffective over the last two weeks. Kane has just one assist in the five games since his 14-game point streak ended.
So now it’ll be Kruger trying to put the puck on Kane’s stick, and trying to put Kane in the best position possible to produce. It’s a highly coveted job. But as the Hawks continue their never-ending search for a long-term solution at second-line center, it’s becoming clear that it’s not as easy as it looks.
“Anytime you play with different players, you’re going to try to play to their strengths,” said Kane, who’ll be adapting to his fifth center in less than 12 months. “You’ve got to play to their strengths and try to implement your strengths in there, too, to be successful as a line. Sometimes you have to switch it up as a player.”
• Mark Lazerus covers the Blackhawks for the Chicago Sun-Times. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org