As the Chicago Blackhawks prepare for their 2013 training camp, which kicks off Thursday morning in South Bend, Ind., Madhouse Enforcer is reviewing three of the biggest questions that the team will hope to answer before the regular season starts next month.
Today's question is this: Who will win the second line center position?
Obviously, the question over the Hawks' second line center spot has raged for years, and head coach Joel Quenneville has tried a variety of players in the role.
Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane have both gotten cracks at it. Dave Bolland was the guy at the beginning of last season. Michal Handzus got to play the role in the Stanley Cup run last year. Even Marcus Kruger occasionally got in on the act.
Now though, it seems as though the team is really willing to give the job to some new faces. Brandon Pirri, who led the AHL in scoring last season, is considered by many to be the favorite for the job, with Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, and Drew LeBlanc all getting some serious consideration for the spot.
Obviously, any spot in Quenneville's lineup is a fluid one, with lines changing regularly even during the course of games. One shift may see Jonathan Toews lined up with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane to take advantage of a kiled off penalty, or Saad may get swapped out with Bryan Bickell on the top line to provide a little bit more speed at the top with some physicality lower on the bill.
Either way, the team doesn't have a defined top-six center outside of Toews, and so they are going to need to designate one before the season starts. So who will it be? Here is a rundown of the contenders:
Pirri's spot in the competition was well-earned with his excellent play in the AHL last season, as well as the impression within the organization that he has been patient enough to earn an opportunity.
The only question is whether or not the team has enough faith in him to give him a full time role. Even in the past few years when the Hawks have struggled to find a player to fill the role of second line center, they haven't promoted Pirri, and that is a sign that cannot be ignored.
The Hawks do have a history of switching players from the wings to the middle, especially if they have previous experience in that area (see Kane, Sharp), and Saad would fit that mold.
The big question surrounding a move to the middle would be whether or not his speedy puck pursuit would have to be curtailed because of the defensive responsibilities involved in being an NHL center. If that is the case, then the Hawks would likely be doing themselves a disservice by having him line up in that slot.
It may have surprised some people to see Shaw slotted in as the third line center last season, but he was effective in the role, and was instrumental in the Hawks' Cup championship.
His gritty defensive style and occasional offensive flourishes have to be considered good assets in a guy who is likely going to be playing serious minutes with both Kane and Hossa, but if the Hawks are looking to go for a more traditional player in that slot, then he may not have the playmaking chops for the role.
LeBlanc, last year's Hobey Baker winner as the best player in college hockey, was brought in by the Hawks late in the season and made an impression with fans and pundits alike.
The more likely course for him will be a trip to the AHL where he can hone his skills in less pressure-filled moments, and to get him up to speed with the professional game. To call him a longshot is probably an accurate statement.
Speaking of longshots, there is some talk that the Hawks might be willing to take a look at Danault, who is considered by many to be among the top two or three prospects in the team's system.
Last season, the 2011 1st Round draft pick had 23 goals and 62 assists in 56 games in the QMJHL, both career highs. He didn't get on the scoresheet in five games as a Rockford IceHog, but his ability to create plays with his deft passing has to intrigue the coaching staff.