Blackhawks

Kruger finding his groove for Hawks

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Kruger finding his groove for Hawks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia Marcus Kruger had his motivation.

The Blackhawks center had a slow start to training camp before improving toward the end, and he was briefly sent to Rockford early in the regular season. His assignment was based on roster numbers and not his performance. But when he was recalled, Kruger nevertheless used it to fuel his game.

I wanted to show that I can be an NHL player, he said recently.

And he is.

Kruger has been a solid checking-line center in Dave Bollands absence, as the young forward continues to hone his North American game with the Blackhawks. Kruger came to Chicago late last season and adjusted quickly to the different ice surface and Blackhawks system.

The fourth-line center moved up a line when Bolland suffered a right-foot injury last week and coach Joel Quenneville said you have to commend Kruger for doing a nice job there.

And if that quick trip to Rockford was a boost, so be it.

It wasnt our intention to get his attention (with that), but you certainly like his response to the immediate call back up and how hes played since that day, Quenneville said. In Game 7 (against Vancouver), he was arguably one of our top players that night here. We had him being a big part of our team coming in, had a slow camp, but at the end of the day hes where he belongs and hes useful in a lot of ways.

His ability to adapt did help make him an easy fit on that checking line with Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik. The three have done just fine together in these last three games, and Kruger said he sticks to the same mindset no matter his partners.

Its pretty much the same, just try to give them the puck on the tape all the time and go from there, and of course be aware of whos on the other team, he said. But you cant worry about the other team too much. You just go out there and play your game.

And Kruger doesnt mind the added defensive responsibility out there. Its something hell especially have to be mindful against Vancouver on Wednesday if Bolland cant go.

Its more, of course, but you cant think too much when youre out there. You have to go with your instincts, he said. Thats what were trying to do.

Kruger has given the Blackhawks a viable center option among their lines. Oh, and he can go on the power play, too. The Blackhawks saw the potential in Kruger when they selected him in 2009. Hes tapping into it now.

We saw him early in camp there and thought it was a matter of time, Quenneville said. Theres more to his game than how he plays defensively. His anticipation offensively is in the right spots, and he should keep improving his game.

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to naturalstattrick.com. Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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