Chicago Blackhawks

Moving forward, who are the Blackhawks’ center options?

Moving forward, who are the Blackhawks’ center options?

The inevitable happened on Sunday, when the Blackhawks traded Marcus Kruger to the Vegas Golden Knights, who then traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

While Kruger is headed to a new team full of former teammates, the Blackhawks have to figure out how to move forward at center. Outside of a few appearances on the second line, Kruger had been the Blackhawks’ reliable fourth-line center for the last few seasons. Now his absence, coupled with Blackhawks not extending Dennis Rasmussen a qualifying offer, leaves the Blackhawks with vacancies down the middle.

As of now, it looks like the Blackhawks may have to revert back to an old habit: taking guys who are more familiar at wing and putting them at center. Hey, look at the roster right now; not a lot of true centers remaining. Anyway, let’s look at the current options.

Tanner Kero

This is an easy choice for one of the bottom two lines. Kero made a good impression on the team last season, and as Denis Rasmussen’s stock fell, Kero’s rose. As with a few other Blackhawks, the faceoff numbers were decent but could be better (he won 44.4 percent of his draws last season).

Nick Schmaltz

Schmaltz’s true position is center, and he did pretty well when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. But overall he looked more comfortable as a wing. He, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik found a good deal of success together last season, but with Brandon Saad back in the fold, Schmaltz will move. At the NHL Draft, coach Joel Quenneville said Schmaltz will get another chance to play with Patrick Kane, this time at left wing. But with the shortages at center now, you wonder if Schmaltz is back in the middle. If so, he’s another one who needs work at faceoffs.

Tommy Wingels

The Blackhawks acquired the versatile forward on July 1, and while he’s played some center he’s more likely to stay on the wing. As general manager Stan Bowman said, the Blackhawks wanted more right-handed shots and players able to take faceoffs, and Wingels’ fills both of those needs. But as far as playing center full time, Wingels probably won’t be that guy.  

Patrick Sharp

No, no, no, no, no and one more time, no. Yes, oh-never-forget-the-2010-Cup-run Twitter, we know he centered the team that postseason. It’s not his natural spot, he’s better at left wing, so leave him there. That said, given his past center work Sharp can help on faceoffs and the Blackhawks will take every bit of that. But keep him at left wing.

Laurent Dauphin

The Blackhawks acquired him as part of the deal that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes. He doesn’t have much NHL experience – he played in 32 career games with the Coyotes – but Dauphin said playing in the AHL last year, “helped me and I think I’m more ready now than ever to play in the NHL.” If he has a good camp, he could get an opportunity.

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

It’s preseason: you don’t need a lot of build-up. Let’s just delve right in, shall we?

1. Lots of shots, but…

The same Joonas Korpisalo that the Blackhawks’ youngsters scored five goals against on Tuesday was on top of his game on Saturday. The Blackhawks peppered him with 54 shots but only two got through, and the second was a 6-on-4 power-play goal in the final two minutes.

“I thought we could have gotten a little more traffic in front of him," Nick Schmaltz said. "I thought we were playing along the outside. I mean we had some great looks. He made some big saves. Some nights you get the bounces and some nights you don’t.”

2. Bérubé’s Blackhawks debut.

Jean-François Bérubé had a tough sequence early in the second period, when he gave up two goals in a 28-second span. This was against a Columbus team that didn’t send many of their top players. He also didn’t see a ton of action in this one; the Blue Jackets fired just 21 shots his way.

3. Growing pains.

Alex DeBrincat had his up and down moments on Saturday night. His turnover led to Columbus’ first goal, he took a slashing penalty and he fought the puck quite a bit. You still saw glimpses of that skill, though, especially with his quick release. Hey, he’s a 19-year-old guy getting his first taste of the NHL. Nights like this are going to happen.

“We all make mistakes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You gotta be safe in certain areas and you learn from that.”

4. Slash-o-meter.

Four more were called on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if that number starts dwindling sooner rather than later, though, because the edict has apparently changed already. Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported earlier on Saturday that the league told officials to ease up on slashing and faceoff violations. But we all figure that’s going to happen once the regular season begins anyway, right?

5. Notre Dame bound.

The destination is familiar but the Blackhawks threw it into their second week of camp this season. It’ll be bonding time for the Blackhawks, who will send a smaller group for several practices there this week. Quenneville figures it’ll be a productive time. “We’ll get some bonding in, play golf together, have a nice outing, couple of road games and a nice campus.”

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

Nick Schmaltz seemed to be everywhere the puck was on Saturday night. Great pursuit of the puck, great passes to Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat and an all-around confidence that’s becoming more apparent by the game.

So has coach Joel Quenneville seen what he’s needed to from Schmaltz at second-line center?

“And more.”

It’s been a pretty impressive showing for Schmaltz this month. The 21-year-old has played in all three of the Blackhawks’ preseason games and keeps getting better in each one. The uncertainty Schmaltz understandably showed as a rookie is gone; the NHL game no longer feels uncomfortable.

“I feel like the game’s slowing down for me, just seeing plays,” Schmaltz said. “I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good and just trying to get better every day.”

Schmaltz and his fellow second liners didn’t connect for goals in the Blackhawks 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The three combined for 12 of the Blackhawks’ 54 shots on goal – Kane and DeBrincat each had five – and the chemistry continues to build between the three.

Jonathan Toews talked on Saturday morning of how much more relaxed Schmaltz looks with the puck now, and that was evident again later that night.

“He’s really starting to get comfortable physically at this level,” Toews said. “He thinks the game so well, puts himself in good spots, much like Kaner where he can skate with the puck and use his speed. He has his head up so he backs guys off. Those two were making great plays tonight and Brinksy was fitting in well. They couldn’t buy a goal but Schmaltzy’s getting better and better, and you’re’ seeing that calm poise that he has really come out the more he gets comfortable.”

Schmaltz was likely getting a second-line audition in some capacity this fall; the original thought was at left wing in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s trade. But Schmaltz has always felt at his best at center. He’s showing that. And more.

“It’s always fun to play no matter if it’s preseason or regular season," he said. "I’m always happy to play, especially when you’re playing with great players. I feel like I’m more comfortable in the middle, able to use my speed a little bit more, create more offense that way.

"I think it’s going well. Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy.”