The Chicago Blackhawks are a team that is one of the strongest and deepest in the league, and with contracts already being worked out for guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford heading into next year, they will likely be that way again in the coming season.
Despite that depth and experience, there is one area that the team is still deficient in, and that’s up the middle at their center position. The Hawks have a number one center in Jonathan Toews, but despite their best efforts to move guys like Marcus Kruger, Michal Handzus and Andrew Shaw into the role, no second line center has really emerged for the team.
For the 2013 Hawks, the lack of center depth wasn’t really an issue as they made their way to a Stanley Cup championship, but they did have a guy in Handzus that stepped up and played better than quite a few fans and experts would have expected. Contrasted with the depth up the middle that the Los Angeles Kings (Kopitar, Carter, Richards, Stoll) and the San Jose Sharks (Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau) have, the Hawks look like an also-ran, but their depth at the wings has really helped them to mask the area of deficiency.
Going into next season, the Hawks will once again have another opportunity to address the issue, and there are a lot of ways they could do it. One of the most likely scenarios would be keeping Shaw in the spot that he occupied over the last few games of the postseason, skating between Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. Those two wingers definitely fed off of each other, and Shaw’s ability to not only use his physicality to create space but also to get to the front of the net for screens and rebound opportunities helped the unit hum as they played some of the best offense of any group of Hawks in the playoffs.
If the Hawks decide to look elsewhere for a second line center, they will still have some in-house options to consider. Kruger is a guy they could plug in there, but his value as a penalty killer and a defensive center on a checking line likely makes him a mainstay on the fourth line instead. Ben Smith could also get another look at the position, with his ability to play in all stages of the game being a big plus if Joel Quenneville goes that direction.
A rookie call-up could also be a recipe for success in the role, with Teuvo Teravainen being the most likely candidate out of the bumper crop of prospects that the team has. His speed and ingenuity with the puck could make a line with Saad and Kane a living nightmare for teams, and the team’s offense could go from impressive to frightening if he lives up to the massive potential that he has.
One final option would be to look outside of the organization for help, but the free agent pool isn’t exactly brimming with talent this year. Guys like Steve Ott and Derek Roy don’t exactly inspire fear in teams, and with limited cap resources, the Hawks aren’t going to be in the market for a big name guy. Trades are also a possibility, but Stan Bowman hasn’t shown much of a willingness to make big-time swaps that require NHL ready players and prospects as part of the package.
Ultimately, the way for the Hawks to go, at least initially, will be to leave Shaw in his place as second line center. It isn’t an ideal situation, but it does allow the Hawks to have some continuity next year with a line that is a proven success (albeit in a small sample size), and it will also allow Teravainen to continue to adjust to the game at the NHL level rather than pressuring him into doing something that he may not be ready to do.