Team Sweden should be considered one of the favorites to win the World Cup of Hockey.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Swedes advanced to the gold-medal final, and this time around, their defense is, if possible, even better. They have playmaking magic in the Sedins and Nicklas Backstrom, firepower inPatric Hornqvist, Loui Eriksson and Filip Forsberg, and, of course, goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Then, to make the team complete, they have Marcus Kruger.
In 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks tied Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals with 1:16 remaining in the third period. Coach Joel Quenneville was looking to get the game to overtime, so he sentMichael Frolik, Dave Bollandand Kruger on the ice to keep the Boston Bruins in check. Seventeen seconds later, Bolland scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal. That was not the plan, but that's why it's one of the most memorable shifts in Kruger's career.
He didn't get an assist on the goal, but it was Kruger who got the puck to Johnny Oduya, whose shot Frolik deflected so that Bolland could slam the loose puck in.
These days, Kruger is Coach Q's go-to defensive forward, even if Kruger's 2015-16 season was forgettable because of the wrist injury he suffered in December. The way Quenneville uses Kruger is reason to ponder why the 26-year-old Swede has gotten only one third-place vote in the Selke Trophy voting in his career (in 2013). In the same time span, 124 other players, including Ilya Kovalchuk, have gotten votes to win the "award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game."
Last season, Kruger's offensive-zone starts were a team-low 19 percent, according to hockeyabstract.com. The year before, when the Blackhawks won their third Cup in six years -- and Kruger his second in three -- his offensive-zone starts were 25 percent. Yet his Corsi has been consistently over 50 percent -- between 51.6 and 55.1 -- except for last season, when it slipped to 48.4.
Even last season, when Kruger missed 41 games because of the injury, he was only 16 total minutes behind captain Jonathan Toews in shorthanded minutes on the Blackhawks, and he led the team's forwards in shorthanded minutes per game by 23 seconds. In 2014-15, he played almost 70 more shorthanded minutes than Toews.
Of course, the quiet Swede is the last person in the world to put his name in the same sentence as the Selke Trophy.
"When I got to Chicago [in 2011], that was the role that was available," he told ESPN.com recently. "So that's what I needed to be able to do if I wanted to play in the league."
Like so many other conscientious defensive forwards, Kruger hasn't always been just a defensive specialist. In 2009, when he broke through in the Swedish league, he scored at a point-per-game pace through the fall -- on pace with the best in the league. He scored six points in six games for Sweden at the World Juniors before suffering an ankle injury. He ended up scoring 31 points in 38 regular-season games and adding another 10 in 16 postseason games as a 19-year-old.
"It's not like I've had to reinvent myself or see myself as a different player. I've always tried to play solid, two-way hockey," he said. "I learned early on to always do what the coach asks you to do, and if this is what the coach wants me to do, I'll try to be as good at it as I possibly can.
"It's not always easy, and there have been times when [having the defensive role] has been frustrating since I'm used to contributing even at the other end of the rink. And I think it's important to keep on pushing one's self to do that and not get too comfortable with being a defensive specialist."
Last season, Kruger collected just four assists in 41 regular-season games and one assist in seven playoff games. All in all, he's scored 28 goals and 88 points in 328 games, so there's room for improvement in his stats. But though the goal celebrations have been few and far apart, Kruger has learned to get his kicks from other aspects of the game.
"Basically, the way I feel depends on how well the team's doing," he said. "If we're not winning, it's harder for me to get up for defense and not contribute in the offensive zone. But it's rewarding to get to play the last shifts of a game because often it means that if we can keep the puck out of our net, we'll win. That's a little boost for me. Things like that may mean more to me now than they used to.
"The coach seems to trust me, and obviously, I want to be on the ice at the end of the games. Everybody wants to contribute to the team success, and this is a pretty cool way too."
Keep an eye on Team Sweden's Marcus Kruger, who is a Selke Trophy-worthy shutdown machine