Chicago Blackhawks Season Preview: Centers

In the first part of our series previewing the 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks defense of the Stanley Cup, we’re going to begin by looking down the middle: the centers.

Coming into the new season, one of the few places the Blackhawks have mostly familiar places on the roster is at center; the only center that left was one-year rental John Madden. While Madden played an important role on last year’s team, especially on special teams, there is no doubt that roles are continuing to evolve with the Blackhawks and his services (and salary) were no longer needed.

Based on their playoff performances, an argument could be made the the Blackhawks’ top three centers are as good as any in the NHL. Certainly the scoring output by Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal is more impressive, but not many have ever accused Malkin of playing defense. Both Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland showed in the postseason that they’re legitimate Selke Award candidates, playing exceptional defense while still contributing at a high level offensively. (As an aside, if Staal’s foot issues weren’t becoming more complicated there was a strong likelihood that Malkin was going to move to a wing position this year.)

Add to Toews and Bolland the strength of Patrick Sharp’s all-around game and the Blackhawks are very well put together in the circle on their top three lines.

In fact, there will be six very lucky wings playing next to these three intelligent playmakers that can look forward to a healthy season beginning. Bolland had back issues before the 2009 playoffs that remained an issue throughout the summer and kept him out of most of last year’s preseason, eventually leading to significant surgery in November that cost him over 40 games. One could easily argue that the only time fans and opponents have seen at the “real” Bolland at the NHL level was in the final three rounds of the 2010 postseason.

And yet there is lack of comfort with the Blackhawks roster because of the perceived exodus off the roster. Fans continue to focus on the quantity of players gone from the roster, not the quality. This disconnect easily leads to uneducated worry and questioning of management.

Last year, the Blackhawks four primary centers during the regular season were Toews, Sharp, Madden and Colin Fraser. With those four skaters holding down the faceoff circle for at least 70 games each, the Hawks were good enough to secure the Central Division crown and challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference the entire season.

Entering the 2010-11 season, the Blackhawks will retain Toews and Sharp on the top two lines, and plan on a healthy Bolland locking down the third. If Toews and Sharp perform to realistic statistical expectations, and we use the postseason as a barometer for Bolland’s potential impact, the Blackhawks are already better than they were last year. The Hawks should have three centers eclipse 50 points this year with ease.

The concern, of course, is with the fourth line. After all, with so many players leaving the team, obviously there is going to be a talent drop off… right?

Consider what Fraser brought to the team last year. In 70 games, he scored a career-high 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) and served 44 penalty minutes. He won 48.8 percent of his faceoffs and was a non-factor on the power play (his season total of PP ice time was 3:13). Fraser did average 1:26 per game on penalty killing duties, blocking 27 shots and being credited with 62 hits.

But he was a fourth line center that, in reality, shouldn’t have seen the ice at the NHL level. Indeed, Fraser should have been little more than one-third of the answer to a great bar stool trivia question. Fraser, with Jim Vandermeer and a second round draft pick (that became Bryan Bickell) was what the Blackhawks received from Philadelphia in the trade that sent Alex Zhamnov to the Flyers.

If Bolland was healthy last year, the Blackhawks would have either skated Sharp at wing or, more likely, would have skated Madden on the fourth line as a special teams ace and faceoff specialist. Fraser was a luxury more than he was a valuable asset.

What Madden brought to the ice was the most significant loss at center. He provided exactly what the Blackhawks hoped for when signing him, adding championship experience to the locker room and playing an outstanding two-way center throughout the season. Madden won 53 percent of his faceoffs last year and was the Hawks top forward in average ice time short-handed at 2:18 per night. He also added 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) and only took 12 penalty minutes in 79 games while playing an average of 15:24 per game.

But let’s back up again for a moment and remember that the first time the Blackhawks were skating with a full deck was in the playoffs, and even then there were some casualties (Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd both missed time).

Evaluating postseason trends, which are a strong indicator of confidence from both Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman, we see that Bolland’s short-handed ice time increased from 1:53 per night in his limited action during the regular season to 2:36 in the playoffs, increasing with each series. In fact, Toews’ average time killing penalties jumped from 1:32 in the regular season to 2:33 in the playoffs.

Furthermore, the great play of the top three centers led to Quenneville bucking the statistical trends in the faceoff circle. While playing the role of shut-down center against his opponent’s top lines, Bolland got murdered in faceoffs, winning only 39.3 percent of his chances. Meanwhile, Madden was steady, winning 51 percent of his opportunities. Based on those two numbers, and experience, the assumption would be that Madden took more draws than Bolland.

That would be incorrect.

Despite being the fourth center for the entire playoffs (Fraser only skated a little more than 25 total minutes in the entire postseason), and winning the second-highest percentage of his draws on the roster, Madden only took 17 percent of the Blackhawks faceoffs in the playoffs. Bolland, on the other hand, took almost 100 more faceoffs than Madden did; Toews took nearly 34 percent of the Hawks total faceoffs and won 60.2 percent of them.

As long as Toews, Sharp and Bolland are on the ice, the Blackhawks should be more than just OK at center.

However, the fourth center position has been open to some debate this summer, and the question marks are in full swing just a week before training camp opens.

With the addition of Ryan Potulny, the Blackhawks now have a lot of options to evaluate before the season starts. There was some belief that phenom Kyle Beach, who has played both wing and center in juniors, would challenge for a roster spot, and many believed the fourth center position was Jake Dowell’s to lose. All of this will make for an interesting competition during training camp.

The numbers would seem to indicate that signing Potulny could be one of the better under-the-radar moves of the summer for the Blackhawks, though.

In Edmonton last year, Potulny played in 64 games and scored 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists). His ice time (16:16 average) was nearly a minute more than Madden average as the third center for the Hawks in the regular season last year, and his 28 penalty minutes were identical to both Sharp and Bolland’s totals from last year.

There’s a level of versatility to Potulny’s numbers that should give Blackhawks fans confidence in the 26-year-old addition.

Potulny averaged 2:08 ice time short-handed per game last year, among the top averages on an Edmonton penalty kill unit that was a disaster. The Oilers were at a disadvantage 40 times more than the Blackhawks were last year, and allowed the third-worst number of power play goals against (67) in the league last year. In the 137-plus minutes that Potulny skated down a man, opponents scored 18 goals; this isn’t a great number, but Potulny was clearly not the central issue for the Oilers last year.

Edmonton had the first overall pick in the draft for a reason: they were bad at everything. Their team plus-minus was the worst in the NHL by 21! While fans have kicked and screamed about Potulny’s plus-minus being strikingly bad (minus-21), consider that their four primary centers were all significantly in the red. Shawn Horcuff was minus-29, Patrick O’Sullivan was minus-35 and Sam Gagner was minus-8; only four Oilers that played in at least 25 games were positive.

What’s more intriguing about Potulny’s numbers comes in the stats that often get lost in the shuffle of the standard goals, assists and plus-minus.

Potulny was an exceptional player on the power play for Edmonton last year, scoring 10 goals while on the advantage. Compared to Madden’s zero, that’s a huge improvement.

He also had two game-winning goals for Edmonton last year, a rare feat considering the Oilers only won 27 times last year. Again, Madden had zero in this category.

The statistics that should be most impressive to Blackhawks fans relate to Potulny’s defense. While he only won 47.4 percent of his faceoffs, Potulny posted some very intriguing numbers in other key categories. In 64 games, Potulny was credited with 41 hits, consistent with Sharp’s 45 (in 82 games) and Toews’ 56 (in 76 games). He was also credited with 31 takeaways, a category in which Blackhawks centers should be elite in 2010-11; Toews ranked ninth in the NHL with 69 last year, and both Sharp and a pro-rated Bolland would have been in the mid-50s (Bolland had 27 in 39 games).

One major concern for Blackhawks fans was the loss of Madden and Brent Sopel from the penalty kill unit, especially after Sopel took puck after puck to the body in the playoffs last year. In what is usually a stat that doesn’t get much attention, Chicago fans have been begging for someone to block shots.

Potulny ranked 10th in the NHL among forwards with 67 blocked shots last year; Madden blocked 58, which was more than Toews (33), Sharp (24) and Bolland (19).

Across the board, Potulny appears to be an adequate replacement for Madden as a fourth line center. In fact, considering his offensive production, he could replace Dustin Byfuglien’s offense as well (Big Buff had just two goals more than Potulny last year and had the worst plus-minus of any regular on the Hawks roster). Potulny should serve as more-than-adequate depth on the penalty kill unit, add depth to the Hawks’ power play, and his production should increase thanks to the better surrounding he’ll have in Chicago.

The Blackhawks have more options than just Potulny for the fourth center position and, because he signed a two-way contract, the Hawks have some flexibility with Potulny this year. If Dowell or Beach has an exceptional training camp, they might win the center position. Tomas Kopecky also has experience playing center and showed that he can be a valuable asset in the postseason as well.

Overall, the Blackhawks should be comfortable that they have arguably the best center depth in the NHL entering the 2010-11 season.

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