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Coyotes’ acquisition of Kruger may signal makeover for shutdown line

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2018, file photo, Carolina Hurricanes' Marcus Kruger (16) eyes the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks in Raleigh, N.C. The Carolina Hurricanes have acquired left wing Jordan Martinook from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for center Marcus Kruger on Thursday, May 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

The Coyotes traded a piece of their effective shutdown line on Thursday when they sent left wing Jordan Martinook and their fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft to the Carolina Hurricanes for shutdown center Marcus Kruger and Carolina’s third-round pick in 2018.

In doing so, they may have closed the door on the return of a second piece of that effective line. Center Brad Richardson, 33, can become a free agent on July 1. While general manager John Chayka did not rule out Richardson’s return, he acknowledged the realities of the market for centers.

“It’s a similar type of profile,” Chayka said. “Looking at the free-agent market of which Brad is a part, I’d say that there are very few of them that check these boxes. With the salary cap rising and demand for center icemen high, it’s going to be a very competitive marketplace. We wanted to make sure if there was an opportunity to get a player like this we did.”

In Kruger, the Coyotes acquired a center three full seasons removed from his most effective years with Chicago when he helped the Blackhawks win Stanley Cups in 2013 and 2015 while teaming with current Coyote Niklas Hjalmarsson. With Chicago, Kruger was a lockdown center, an effective face-off man and a top-notch penalty killer, but he suffered a dislocated wrist in December 2015 that sidelined him four months.

The Blackhawks signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million deal that summer that forced them to trade him to Carolina the following summer in a cap-saving move. Kruger struggled in his one season with the Hurricanes. An NHL source said he never meshed with then-coach Bill Peters or his fourth-line role.

“I tried to go in there with a good mindset and tried to earn the respect and a role there,” Kruger said. “It just wasn’t a good fit. I could have done a lot of stuff different, playing a lot better but that’s how it is and I’m going to work hard this offseason and I’m really excited to get a chance here to play.”

Kruger was waived in February and assigned to the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate in Charlotte. Chayka and Kruger both revealed that Kruger played through an abdominal sports hernia that hampered him last season.

He had surgery on it two weeks ago, with an estimated recovery time of six weeks.

“It’s been there for a while and it finally came to a point where it wasn’t going to work and be able to skate the way I wanted to,” Kruger said. “I kind of got forced into doing it. There was nothing else I could do than proceed to surgery. I’m still pretty fresh out of surgery but I feel good. We’ve got a long way to go until training camp so that shouldn’t be bugging me more.”

Kruger, who will turn 28 on May 27, appeared in 48 games for the Hurricanes last season, scoring one goal and recording five assists in 10:50 of average ice time. In 446 NHL games, he has 34 goals and 111 points. If he can regain the form that made him effective in Chicago, he could be an effective penalty killer and form a new shutdown line with Nick Cousins and perhaps Tucson Roadrunners left wing Lawson Crouse, who has one more season left on an entry-level deal that would pay him $894,167.

“Marcus is a player that we’ve looked at in the past,” Chayka said. “We’ve got some young wingers. We think that having stability up the middle is going to be very important for our group. He’s a guy that does provide stability. He’s known as a high-character guy, both hard working on the ice but also hard working off the ice and very detailed with his regimen. He does a lot of things that we want to bring to our locker room for our young players to learn from. He’s a guy that has made a living and won Cups being that stabilizer up the middle, being able to play up against some tough competition.”

Martinook had six goals and 15 points this season after setting career highs with 11 goals and 25 points the previous season under coach Dave Tippett. Like many of the Coyotes, he struggled over the first half of the season before finding his groove in new coach Rick Tocchet’s system on that shutdown line.

“I felt like it took us a while to feel each other out but I felt like the last half of the year he deployed our line as a shutdown line. and that’s kind of been my role the last couple of years so around Christmas time, I felt like it started to gel and connect,” Martinook said. “From Jan. 1, on we pretty much got matched up against every top line and I felt like we did a pretty good job doing it. In January and February we were even putting the puck in the net. I was excited to see where this summer would go and I was hoping they were going to bring [Richardson] back. I was hoping we could pick up where we left off.”

Martinook said he played the second half of the season with a torn ligament off his left thumb.

“I played with a cast for the last half of the season,” he said. “It was definitely harder to create some offense. I could have got surgery but I chose to play and that was my decision. They said it’s healed enough that they’re confident it should be good for training camp. Coming in healthy, hopefully I’ll have a good start.”

Martinook said the trade caught him by surprise.

“I didn’t even know a trade could happen this time of year,” he said. “When I got that call it was very shocking but I’ve had an hour or two hours to let it sink in. Carolina is kind of a similar situation to Arizona with a lot of young talent up and coming so I’m excited to join that and put my stamp on it.”

Martinook played three full seasons with the Coyotes, scoring 25 goals and totalling 65 points in 247 games.

“I have zero bad things to say about Arizona,” he said. “They gave me my first chance in the NHL. To put roots down here the last three years and meet amazing people within the organization and the fans has been an absolute blast.

“Reading a couple of comments from some of the younger fans I interacted with definitely brought a couple tears to my eyes. It’s been a hard day but it’s exciting and me and my wife said it’s good that it happened now rather than training camp because we have some time to deal with some things and get everything situated before we have to get going again.”

With the trade, the Coyotes will have five draft picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center in Dallas from June 22-23. They have their own first-round pick. They own Minnesota’s second-round pick from the Martin Hanzal trade. They own their own third-round pick along with Carolina’s third-round pick and Calgary’s third-round pick from the Mike Smith trade. They also have picks in the sixth and seventh rounds. They do not have fourth- or fifth-round picks.

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