Part of what makes the Blackhawks so strong is their depth. The Hawks’ lineup is made up of strong possession players and puck-moving defenseman. Such a deep group of players can make it difficult to find out who is really driving possession. Chicago finished last season second in Corsi-for percentage just behind the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, and much of this has to do with the aforementioned depth and style of play. Last week, I compared the contracts of Toews and Kane and found that Toews drives possession and improves his teammates at an almost unbelievable rate. This got me thinking about another Hawks pivot who has quietly become a strong possession player in his own right.
Marcus Kruger has been (rightfully) referred to as a defensive specialist for Chicago over the last three seasons and played an integral role on the penalty-kill for the last three seasons, including representing half of a dynamic duo with Michael Frolik during the 2012-13 Stanley Cup run. Kruger continued his defensive role and picked up the lackluster play of Brandon Bollig along the way this past season. With Bollig gone, Kruger may finally get the linemates he deserves as he has become possibly the best fourth-line center in the league.
Last year, Joel Quenneville sheltered his top lines while giving the majority of defensive zone starts to Kruger and company. Even while facing middle of the road competition, with rough zone starts and mediocre teammates, Kruger finished with a corsi-for of 51.4%. This is a respectable corsi number but well below the average corsi-for percentage of the rest of the team. Kruger’s corsi-for percentage relative to his team was -5.2% (Corsi-for percentage relative is a player’s corsi-for differential compared to the rest of the team when the player is not on the ice). So, we can see that Kruger had a positive corsi-for percentage but was still below the majority of the team in this stat category. This does not mean he was underperforming however.
Let’s take a look at Kruger’s WOWY’s for last season.
It’s obvious that Kruger doesn’t have the same effect on his teammates as Toews does. It would be interesting to see Toews’ numbers if he was put in the same situations as Kruger though. Toews wouldn’t look nearly as dominant as he does if he had to play with weaker teammates and started a majority of shifts in the defensive-zone. It’s not explicit, but Kruger has been able to excel in this role. We can assume that most of the defenseman are going to have better Corsi-for percentages when they play without Kruger’s line, as the WOWY graph shows us. As a fourth-liner, Kruger is expected to play defense, but he controls over half of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. This is only more amazing when we consider his usage. Unlike many other fourth-liners, Kruger does not receive sheltered usage (low quality of competition with a high percentage of offensive-zone starts).
Let’s take a look at Kruger’s usage compared with other fourth-lines from around the league last year.
I have grouped together players who had similar roles on their respective teams last season. All of the players included above are centers with the exception of Antoine Roussel who plays left wing. Top left on this chart would represent tough zone starts and difficult competition, while low right would represent easier zone starts and relatively easy competition. Kruger not only had the toughest zone starts of the players included in the chart, he had the 4th toughest zone starts in the entire league. What’s more, Kruger had the 28th worst quality of teammates among forwards last year. Even with all of these factors working against him, Kruger still managed a positive CF%, something not many players in his situation could do.
So, what does this all mean? Kruger can clearly handle the usage he was handed last year and is ready for an expanded role, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he should move up a line. The Hawks can take an aggressive, yet sensible, move by rolling four lines consistently next season rather than having a designated line for “grinders”. Kruger can hold his own on the fourth line and would realistically be a top-9 forward on virtually any other team in the league.
When it comes down to it, the Hawks are wasting skill if they don’t increase Kruger’s role. Using analytics helps us evaluate players, but it’s real value is identifying how to optimize players in a given system. It’s clear from the evidence above that Kruger can contribute more to the Hawks’ system. It’s now just a matter of whether Chicago is willing to let that happen.
As if the current evidence isn’t enough, we can use a stat called dCorsi to further explain the value of Marcus Kruger. dCorsi, a recently revealed statistic, adds context, in the form of usage, to a player’s performance. Stephen Burtch over at Pension Plan Puppets has been developing his dCorsi stat for over two years. He recently released explanations of this stat (both technical and lay-versions) on Pension Plan Puppets and NHL Numbers. Basically, dCorsi (delta Corsi) is the difference in Expected Corsi and Observed Corsi of a player. An overly simplified way of viewing Expected Corsi is to think of it as how the average player would perform in the exact same circumstances. If a player’s Observed Corsi is above his Expected Corsi, the dCorsi will be positive. A positive dCorsi means the player is outperforming his situation and should be given an expanded role. A negative dCorsi would mean a player is underperforming compared to the average player in those same conditions and decreasing their role is advised. A dCorsi of 0 would mean the player is playing exactly to those conditions and is in the optimal usage. I highly recommend checking out Burtch’s work with dCorsi. It is a new stat and requires some revisions before we can fully trust it, but it is still a valuable tool with some impressive potential value.
Now that we have the explanation of dCorsi, we can look at Kruger’s dCorsi numbers. Remember, a positive value means the player should be receiving expanded usage.
Kruger’s dCorsi is the middle chart in the image above. To the left is his dCorsi-for/20 minutes, and to the left is his d-Corsi-against/20 minutes. As you can see, his dCorsi numbers are positive across the board. He is creating more Corsi events than expected while also allowing less Corsi events against than expected, resulting in an impressive dCorsi. A three season sample isn’t perfect, but there is also no reason to believe Kruger’s trend won’t continue. While dCorsi should be taken with a grain of salt at this point (I say this mostly because even Burtch has recognized the stat needs slight improvements), it is clear this corroborates the conclusion made above.
You can check out other players around the league by using the Tableau Visual Stephen Burtch posted.
Numbers come from: