A lot was said at the Blackhawks convention, ranging from the dancing abilities of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews or Corey Crawford’s new love of a microphone and Andrew Shaw’s facial scars.
When folks weren’t busy asking for autographs, they heard a few names thrown around by GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville that could be in the mix for the second line center position as the team looks ahead to the 2013-14 season.
Let’s look at the options the Hawks have for the coming season.
One option that worked fairly well in the postseason is Michal Handzus. His news this weekend was that the two surgeries he had on postseason injuries were successful, and doctors are telling him he’ll be ready for the start of training camp.
The Hawks didn’t ask much of Handzus after acquiring him at the deadline, but he was thrown into a prominent, top-six role between Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp frequently during the playoff run. During the postseason, Handzus won only 156 of 336 faceoffs (46.4 percent), but he showed an offensive ability that San Jose had taken for granted.
After posting only eight points (two goals, six assists) in 39 regular season games between San Jose and Chicago, Handzus registered 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 23 playoff games, including one short-handed goal. There are legitimate concerns about his ability to regularly skate with the Hawks’ top forwards, but he was more than adequate between Sharp and Hossa during the playoffs.
The name that raised eyebrows this weekend was the mention of Brandon Saad playing center. Brian Hedger tweeted a few quotes from Quenneville, including the following about Saad playing center:
Saad, who was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy last season after spending a lot of time on a line with Toews and Hossa, saw very few faceoffs during the abbreviated regular season. He took 46 faceoffs in 46 games, winning only 17 (37 percent). In the postseason, Saad won seven of 17 total faceoffs in 23 games (41.2 percent).
Saad, who doesn’t turn 21 until late-October, has only one season of NHL experience on his resume but showed that he can play with the Hawks’ top six. His lack of work at the dot leads to more of the same questions about the Hawks’ ability to win draws consistently, though. The devil’s advocate would ask why, if he looked good as a top-six wing, would you change his position?
Saad and Handzus are the two familiar faces from the NHL roster. Another player that has played center in Chicago more than either of those two could also be in the mix for the second line center as well.
Marcus Kruger took 493 faceoffs during the regular season last year, the highest total of returning Hawks not-named-Toews. While many fans will look at his 46.2 win percentage from the regular season as being not good enough for a top-six role, digging deeper shows that his stellar work as a penalty kill specialist hurt his faceoff numbers.
Kruger won 50 percent of his even strength faceoffs during the regular season last year, and won 44 of 95 (46.3 percent) even strength draws in the postseason. While the team would certainly not want to take another valuable asset off their great penalty kill unit (after already trading away Michael Frolik), Kruger’s even strength work at the dot and defensively-responsible game should help his stock heading into training camp.
There are two players that haven’t seen as much NHL action that could also be in the mix, however.
We wrote about Brandon Pirri at some length earlier this summer, and believe he has done enough in Rockford to deserve a long-term shot at the United Center this fall. He led the AHL in points and assists last year with the IceHogs, and continued to play well after Saad, Shaw and Kruger were promoted.
Pirri, 22, is entering the final season of his entry-level contract and has the offensive ability to add another dimension to the Hawks’ top six. In one NHL game this year, Pirri won six of 14 faceoffs (42.9 percent), but has two assists in seven career NHL games.
But with the money Bryan Bickell will be making, he’ll have to prove himself quickly to bump someone else out of the group that dominated the regular season last year; if Bickell is getting paid to be a top-six wing and Pirri is a top-six center, then someone (read: Saad) is headed for the third line.
The other name to consider is Drew LeBlanc. After winning the Hobey Baker Award at St. Cloud State, LeBlanc signed with the Hawks for the remainder of the regular season; he has since received a two-year contract from the organization.
LeBlanc, who turned 24 in late-June, failed to register a point in three NHL contests after signing, but won nine of 18 faceoffs.
Other names that could be considered include Shaw, Jimmy Hayes and even Ben Smith. But the five that will likely get the most attention this winter will be Handzus, Saad, Kruger, Pirri and LeBlanc.