When Jason Arnott, coming off 31 points with two teams last year, signed with St. Louis, many Blackhawks fans abused their Kleenex boxes and vented on Twitter that the team couldn’t win.
The rallying cry the entire summer has been two things: size and a center for the second line.
And yet fans are taking for granted a simple reality: the second line center is already in Chicago, and his name is Patrick Sharp.
Yes, most Chicagoans continue to have a love affair with a line of Sharp with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. And why shouldn’t we? When they’re on the ice together, they’re electric; for a month last year, the line averaged nearly two points per night.
But there’s another reality at play here, and it’s called need being more important than want.
Consider how Sharp stacks up against other centers in the NHL.
Last year, 108 players in the NHL took more than the 508 faceoffs Sharp took. He won exactly 48 percent of his draws, which, while not spectacular (like Toews’ 56.7 percent), is decent. Of those 108 skaters, 28 won a lower percentage of faceoffs than Sharp did, putting him right around the bottom quarter of the group.
OK, so maybe his performance last year at the dot didn’t blow you away. But look at his history, you know precisely what you’re going to get from him; in the previous four seasons with the Blackhawks, Sharp won 48.4 percent of his 2,634 faceoffs, alternating seasons over and under the 50 percent benchmark.
Where Sharp’s value skyrockets is when we look away from the faceoff circle. If you look at the top ten centers in the NHL in scoring last year, a group that would include Sharp, six of the ten had a better faceoff percentage than Sharp. But only eight centers in the entire league scored more than Sharp’s 71 points.
To put all of this into a Cliff Notes expression of Sharp’s relative value, only the following players scored at least 71 points and won at least 48 percent of their faceoffs last year (min. 500 faceoffs):
- Henrik Sedin
- Brad Richards
- Eric Staal
- Jonathan Toews
- Ryan Kesler
- Anze Kopitar
- Patrick Sharp
In this year’s weak free agent class, there wasn’t a better option at center than Sharp. Indeed, the only player on this list that was available was Richards, and the Hawks certainly weren’t going to throw the king’s ransom at him like the New York Rangers did.
Furthermore, if we look back at the two goals of this summer’s spending, skating Sharp with Toews and Kane defeats the purpose of one of those goals. Sharp can score with the best in the league, but he does nothing to protect Kane. The Blackhawks need to put some size opposite Kane to protect one of the games elite players, and Sharp doesn’t accomplish that goal.
Sharp isn’t going to magically see his point total disappear if he leaves Kane and Toews this year. A pretty decent player by the name of Marian Hossa happens to be on the second unit for the Hawks.
In a perfect world, Dave Bolland would step up his game and become the second line center that the organization hoped he would become when they handed him a salary of over $3M per season. But he won only 45.1 percent of his faceoffs last year, and has struggled through two injury-filled seasons after establishing a career-high with 47 points in 2008-09.
While everyone would love the Blackhawks to have a roster as close to perfect as the Oilers of the mid-1980s, that’s not realistic in the salary cap era we live in now. Having a player with the skills of Sharp on the roster is an advantage the organization should take advantage of, and fans should accept.
Sharp should, and likely will, be your second line center in Chicago this fall.