The Sheldon-Brookbank-at-Forward-Experiment appears to have drawn to a close, as the Chicago Blackhawks made a series of moves to bolster their winger position for the short-term.
For starters, the team sent down center Brandon Pirri to the Rockford IceHogs. Pirri had seen decreased playing time over the past several games, and when Michal Handzus returned to the lineup from a lengthy absence, it was largely viewed as just a matter of time before Pirri was shipped out to make room for other bottom-six forwards.
In that vein, the Hawks called up not one but two wingers from the AHL to replace him. Jeremy Morin, who had a stint with the team earlier this year mostly playing third line winger minutes, was recalled, as was Joakim Nordstrom, who was arguably the most surprising player to make the Hawks’ roster out of training camp. He mostly played fourth line minutes with Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig, but the emergence of Ben Smith as a bona fide player on that line caused the Hawks to send him back down.
The Hawks also announced that defenseman Mike Kostka will report to Rockford for a conditioning assignment before he rejoins the team later this month. Odds are this move is being made to give the team some time to make a decision about what to do with their forward situation, considering the team has opted to keep eight defensemen on the roster this year when Kostka was healthy.
The most likely outcome of these call-ups would be that Nordstrom will be sent back down once Kostka rejoins the team, and when Bickell comes back to the big club, Morin would probably be sent down. Theoretically the Hawks could keep one of those players up and carry the maximum of 23 guys on their roster, but the salary cap could prevent that from happening.
At any rate, the Hawks’ decision to send Pirri back down was going to happen sooner or later anyway. As soon as Handzus came back, Pirri was demoted from second line center, and would not have been had he played up to the level that Quenneville and his coaching staff want him to play at. Whether or not that benchmark is fair is definitely up for discussion, but whatever the evaluation criteria are for a guy like Pirri, it’s clear that this coaching staff does not think he’s ready for the big leagues, and with the luxury of having so many veteran forwards available, the Hawks can afford to continue to let him marinate in the minor leagues for a little while longer.
As for Morin and Nordstrom, it isn’t immediately clear where they will fit on. Odds are that Morin will slide into a third line spot with Andrew Shaw and Kris Versteeg, but Quenneville has shown a tendency to shuffle around lines a little bit lately, especially among his bottom-nine forwards. With five games coming up in the next seven days, Quenneville will also more than likely look to give Handzus a rest at some point, and that would mean that the Hawks will have to shuffle around centers.
Smith could get a look in a situation at like that as the fourth line guy, with Nordstrom and Brandon Bollig skating alongside him. Versteeg could also take over as the third line center with Smith and Morin alongside.
Quenneville’s thought process on these potentials scenarios will play out over the next few days, but one thing is for certain: this coaching staff isn’t willing to turn the keys to the kingdom over to Pirri just yet, and so the search for a true number two center for this team will continue.