SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As the Blackhawks opened training camp this week, there weren’t many preseason questions dogging them. No massive roster upheavals, no injury issues, no offseason dramas.
Well, there is one question that just comes with the Blackhawks at this time of year: who’s going to be the No. 2 center? Brandon Saad, who coach Joel Quenneville said will get his chance at the spot, despite never playing center before? Brandon Pirri, who general manager Stan Bowman said has a good chance of making the team, potentially at that spot? Someone else? (Please see Michal Handzus taking the job and running with it last postseason, and the various other Blackhawks who have filled the role part-time the past few seasons.)
Yes, that merry-go-round at No. 2 center is back again. The Blackhawks proved last year that, even when they don’t have a true No. 2 center, they still win a lot of games. Still, getting someone there who can play it, and play it well, is always the goal.
For Saad this is definitely a learning experience. Outside of some center work at a prospect camp a few years ago, center is a new position for him, and he admits he was a little surprised when coach Joel Quenneville approached him about it recently. But getting thrown into the fire shouldn’t intimidate Saad: the 20-year-old took a top-line spot in Game 2 last season and played there like he was a veteran. Still, there’s a lot of learning ahead if he’s going to be the guy.
“It’s good to be diverse and be able to play whatever position. Hopefully I can add this to my game,” said Saad, who’s already strong defensively but put faceoffs among the things he has to hone. “When (Jonathan Toews) got tossed out I went in. Probably the biggest thing is working on that. The rest of that is being aware out there. It’ll take an adjustment but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Quenneville thought Saad had played some center in juniors and sounded surprised that Saad hadn’t. He didn’t consider that a knock for his potential at the position, though.
“He goes all over the ice, anyway,” Quenneville said to laughs. “He has the puck a lot. Being in the middle of the ice or the walls – he’ll have it more in the middle – when he has (the puck) he does good things. Adapting how he plays down low in his own end, that’ll be the determining factor in how long he’s going to do it and how well he’ll do it.”
Pirri’s vied for jobs at Blackhawks camps before, but knows this year is the most realistic of the opportunities he’s had. He patterned his summer with that in mind, staying in Chicago and working out with Blackhawks strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman. For Pirri, center is a natural position. What will be an adjustment, if he makes it, is transitioning from the AHL, where he was the league’s leading scorer last season, to the NHL. Pirri’s ready to see how he can make that.
“Opportunity is opportunity. It’s pro hockey, it’s a different game, it’s tougher, players are better, but it’s the same thing,” said Pirri, who will play wherever the Blackhawks want, second-line center or elsewhere. “I’ll do what I have to do to make this team. I’m just doing everything I can and I’ll do it with a smile.”