Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Chicago Blackhawks [Print without images]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Depth at center of Hawks' concerns

By Jesse Rogers

Patrick Sharp
As the team's best sniper, Patrick Sharp's best position is not at center.
So the Chicago Blackhawks have enough NHL-ready centers now?

That was the vibe coming from general manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville at the team's prospect's camp Monday.

Two caveats: Bowman and Quenneville might just be intimating that as to not show their hand, though that seems far-fetched. And with half the summer to go, they have every right to change their minds.

However, the cases they were making for the centers on the roster indicate they might just go to camp with Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland as the only proven players up the middle, though Bowman made the case for Patrick Sharp as well.

"People always want to say Sharp isn't a center but he's done it the last couple of years," Bowman said. "I don't know what he has to do to prove he can play center. He's a good winger too but we won a Stanley Cup with Patrick playing in the middle. That's always an option."

Under that thinking, the Hawks better bring back Nick Boynton because they won a Stanley Cup with him playing defense. The point is the Hawks were so good and deep in 2009-10 they could afford Sharp playing center, but can they still?

It's become a yearly question with the Hawks sharpshooter: should he play center or wing? It doesn't take an intricate breakdown of his statistics to know he's better at wing. Snipers don't normally play center and Sharp is the Hawks quintessential sniper.

As the roster stands now, where Sharp plays has a trickle down affect on the rest of the forwards. It's that important.

Bowman and Quenneville tried to make the case for other players sighting their flexibility: "Ben Smith has played there in Rockford;" "Marcus Kruger is a year older;" "Michael Frolik had some time in the middle;" are all things that have been said to make the case for others in the middle.

Don't take my word, Bowman said they were in need of a center as well.

"In a perfect world, you'd like to have a defenseman and a center," he said.

That was Bowman on Feb. 27. The day before the trade deadline. Here he is the next day, after the deadline had passed.

"We were looking to add, but Sharp and [Tomas] Kopecky can always play in the middle," Bowman said. "I think having Ryan Johnson come on here over the last few weeks is getting us more comfortable at that position. He came in without training camp, so it took him a little bit to get up to speed."

Kopecky is gone and Johnson's agent, Tom Laidlaw, told ESPNChicago.com the Hawks haven't called him even once about Johnson returning. For whatever reason, he doesn't look like a possibility despite Johnson being one of the best faceoff men in the game last season.

Marcus Kruger
Marcus Kruger benefitted from playing time last season, but he's still young.


So if the Hawks were thin at the trade deadline, and lost more up the middle this offseason, why do they feel good at that position now? Yes, Kruger is a budding prospect and should benefit greatly from his time at the end of last year, but he's still just a young rookie.

The Hawks could have made the case they bettered themselves in other areas, so a small weakness at center depth is sustainable, but they didn't say that Monday. They also could have repeated an earlier summer sentiment that the free-agent center possibilities this offseason were weak and they were saving money for an in-season deal. But that wasn't heard either. They could have simply said "you cant have a perfect team and this is where we are short," but when presented with that opening, it was denied.

Maybe they simply want to provide some confidence in the guys that will have to step up in those roles and instead of pointing out a weakness, they wanted to make it sound like a strength.

But here is the real question: With the money spent on role players like Sean O'Donnell, Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo, wouldn't it have been prudent to find another center? It's probably a little more important than that extra muscle they brought in. After all, John Scott, Mayers and Carcillo aren't going to play every night anyway. But a serviceable center will. In fairness the Hawks did sign Brett McLean but that doesn't answer their problems.

The Hawks have a logjam at wing and defense and have said "competition" will determine playing time so where is the competition at center? And what has changed since the trade deadline?

Exchange Kruger for Johnson and the Hawks are in the same position. Worse if you believe Kruger needs seasoning. Sharp at center is not the answer. Not for Sharp at least, and probably not for the team.

Hopefully the Hawks have more to do with half the summer to go, otherwise its déjà vu all over again at the center position.