As the Blackhawks approach free agency this summer, everyone has their opinion of who, or what position, should be at the top of GM Stan Bowman’s wish list.
One of the most popular “needs” on this roster is center, and names like Jason Arnott have been tossed around
But before we start handing out contracts as a fan base, placing the potential of a shopping spree into the context of organization depth is a mandatory exercise in reality.
Obviously, the Blackhawks have their top line center position locked down until Jonathan Toews retires. And David Bolland is under contract in Chicago for three more seasons. Off the 2010-11 roster, Ryan Johnson is an unrestricted free agent and Jake Dowell is a restricted free agent this summer.
However, there are other players that spent time at the dot last season, specifically Patrick Sharp. Most fans agree that Sharp is a better player at wing – especially with Toews and Patrick Kane – but he was a productive second line center nonetheless.
So the Blackhawks have two players, Sharp and Bolland, that could ultimately be the center on the second line next year. Additionally, a thin free agent class this summer, coupled with the Blackhawks limited cap flexibility, could drive the price of average players like soon-to-be former-Blackhawk Tomas Kopecky up.
Should the Hawks overspend in dollars, or years, for a player to fill a perceived need? And how much is too much?
To appropriately answer those questions, we need to circle back to another discussion of supply and demand.
The Blackhawks have some surprising depth at center as an organization that should give Bowman pause when considering anything longer than a one year contract to a veteran. In 2010-11, we saw a few youngsters make their NHL debuts: Brandon Pirri and Marcus Krüger. There are other centers developing in the system that should be considered before handing anyone a two or three-year contract.
Let’s look at some of the young centers in the Blackhawks organization.
- Brandon Pirri
Listed at six feet tall and 160 pounds, Pirri is a smooth skater who can finish. He’s still only 20, and spent his first professional season in Rockford this year, posting 43 points (12 goals, 31 assists) in 70 games in the AHL. He likely needs more time to develop physically, but he could project as a second line center in the not-too-distant future.
- Marcus Krüger
Krüger spent last season in the Swedish Elite League with Djurgardens IF Stockholm, and has been a popular name in conversations lately because of his strong play in the Vancouver series. Bowman has referenced Bolland when asked to characterize his game. He scored 35 points (5 goals, 29 assists) in 52 games this season. Like Pirri, Krüger is still only 20 but will probably be on the NHL roster next year.
- Byron Froese
Froese, 20, is a little bigger physically than Pirri or Krüger (6-1, 180) and is coming off an offensive season that not many scouts anticipated. With the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League, Froese saw a 20-point jump from his previous career best to 81 points (43 goals, 38 assists) in 70 games. He had been described as a defensive forward, but his 2010-11 production may transition that into a “two-way centerman” label.
- David Gilbert
Gilbert, 20, saw a wonderful increase in his offensive production this season in juniors. He’s a little bigger than Froese (6-2, 185), but also had a strong campaign with 51 points (28 goals, 23 assists) in 52 games with Acadie-Bathurst before joining the IceHogs for five games at the end of the season. He was able to score one goal and added two assists in those five AHL contests.
- Rob Flick
Flick, 20, is the most physical of the Blackhawks’ young center prospects. He’s listed as being bigger than any of the other prospects (6-2, 208) and has racked up 324 penalty minutes in 133 combined games the last two years in juniors, but his offense elevated to produce 57 points (27 goals, 30 assists) in 68 games during the 2010-11 season.
- Mirko Hoefflin
Hoefflin, who won’t turn 19 until June 18, showed a wonderful understanding for the game and great vision on the ice at last year’s prospect camp. He has a lot of physical maturing to do before he skates in the NHL (listed at 6-0, 163), but had a productive season in juniors with 45 points (14 goals, 31 assists) in 54 regular season. Hoefflin followed that with 14 points in 15 postseason contests, and represented Germany in the World Junior Championships this year as well.
As you can see, most of these centers share something in common: they can’t legally consume alcohol in the United States. They also have all produced well on the offensive end of the ice, and have a future in the National Hockey League.
An argument could be made that Bowman made a mistake by signing too many veterans before taking an appropriate inventory of his organizational depth last summer, especially with Jordan Hendry, Nick Boynton and John Scott all being signed to help the blue line depth when Nick Leddy ultimately ended up being a better player than any of those three in April.
We aren’t saying all of these kids are ready for the United Center in October, but certainly the depth the Hawks have at center should provide management with confidence to avoid overspending whenever possible.