Changes at center could be in Hawks' future

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
11:14
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Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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Brandon SaadBill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks are hoping Brandon Saad will emerge as the answer as a second-line center.
CHICAGO -- Changes are likely coming for the Chicago Blackhawks in the not-so-distant future.

Don't worry, the core will likely stay intact. There isn't expected to be much turnover in the team's wingers and defensemen. Wings Bryan Bickell, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp and defensemen Duncan Keith, Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival and Brent Seabrook are all signed through at least the 2014-2015 season.

Where change may occur, though, is at center. Aside from Jonathan Toews, there's plenty of uncertainty over which players will fill the team's centermen roles in the future.

Some center changes will arrive next season. Most notably, the second-line center is up for grabs again.

Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus, all of whom have played center in the past, were thought to be the logical choices for the spot. But Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville did away with that assumption when he recently said Saad, who has mostly played left wing in his career, will be given first crack at the second-line center opening.

"[Saad] is probably the guy we're thinking maybe grab that spot, would be an option," Quenneville said during the Blackhawks convention. "It's something we talked about as a staff late in the year. It's something going into the season we could be exploring."

The 20-year-old Saad has proven he can be a top-6 forward. He's strong with the puck and has a knack for producing offensively. He also earned some time on the penalty kill as last season progressed. But he's not a sure thing at center, where distributing the puck and winning faceoffs are often essential skills. He may be able to fill the job, but training camp will be key for him.

If Saad does work out as the second-line center, the chips likely will fall in one way. Shaw is likely to remain as the third-line center. As long as he's being smart about his aggressiveness, he provides enough offense and defense to be a perfect fit for that third line. Handzus would likely be the fourth-line centerman. Kruger has played the wing in the past, so he'd probably move there. Pirri has the offensive skills to be a winger and may have to settle for that this season. He could also fill in for Handzus when Handzus needs time off.

Beyond next season, the center position will get more complicated.

Handzus isn't to likely re-sign after next season. Shaw and Pirri, who are both 22 years old, are restricted free agents after next season and what they demand in new salaries will depend on their performances next season. Shaw certainly could draw an offer sheet from other teams.

One would assume the Blackhawks would want to re-sign Shaw and Pirri after next season, but it may not be so simple if both players are costly. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has to take into account the upcoming negotiations of extensions for Toews and Kane, the decision whether to re-sign goaltender Corey Crawford and the other centers in the Blackhawks system.

Pirri is just one of a handful of centers on the verge of the NHL. Twenty-four-year-old Drew LeBlanc, signed by the Blackhawks out of college in April, and 2010 first-round picks Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault, who are both 20, are right there too. Plus, 2012 first-round pick Teuvo Teravainen is expected to be a future star for the Blackhawks and is getting closer as well.

LeBlanc, McNeill and Danault will likely spend most of the 2013-2014 season with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. Teravainen, 18, will play at least one more season in Finland.

"In terms of center, we're trying to build it within," Bowman said at the convention. "One of the focuses a few years back in the draft was to get a lot of centermen. Now we have a lot of centermen that are sort of knocking on the door. I think what we have to do is give them the opportunity whether it's Brandon Pirri, Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault. Those are three young players who are sort of close. Drew LeBlanc is a player we added last year who is coming out of college.

"On the younger side, we have Teravainen from Finland. So there's five or six players right there over the next couple of years who are going to be in the mix. We're going to let the players sort of sort out who's ready right now. Obviously Pirri and LeBlanc are probably the closest because of their age and accomplishments to date. McNeill and Danault are starting their pro careers. I think Teuvo is going to be a superb talent when he gets here."
Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Patrick Sharp
PTS GOALS AST +/-
78 34 44 13
OTHER LEADERS
GoalsP. Sharp 34
AssistsD. Keith 55
+/-M. Hossa 28
GAAC. Crawford 2.26