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.

Patrick Sharp will do whatever it takes to win another Stanley Cup in return to Blackhawks

Patrick Sharp will do whatever it takes to win another Stanley Cup in return to Blackhawks

Patrick Sharp was finishing up his opening statement when he broached the obvious subject: what to expect in his second tour of duty with the Blackhawks?

“I want to make it clear that I’m coming back home to contribute to the Blackhawks in whatever role it may be,” he said.

Sharp departed the Blackhawks two summers ago a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a top-six forward who played a big role in the team’s success. Now he’s back with Chicago, although with time passing comes changes. Sharp is now 35 and coming off one of his toughest seasons, especially with injuries. He’s recovering, very well and on schedule, from a hip surgery in March. He probably won’t be the top-six guy this time around. But to get another chance at a Cup with a group he knows very well, Sharp is willing to play whatever role necessary.

Sharp talked to the media on Saturday afternoon, not long after signing his one-year deal worth $1 million with the Blackhawks. It’s the latest in the Blackhawks’ attempts to rekindle magic with former players. For the most part, this has not worked out well. But for general manager Stan Bowman, the familiarity of Sharp, coupled with the forward’s ability to mentor to young players and fill a role on a team needing depth, was a convincing combination.

“We expect him to bring a lot of speed to the table. He knows how to put the puck in the net. That’s something some players just have a knack of getting open and getting the shot off. As far as the intangibles go, stuff away from the ice, there’s no question there’s chemistry there,” Bowman said. “There are younger players here who weren’t here when Patrick was here before, but I think he’s going to help mentor those guys. Patrick has a lot of experience, been through a lot of situations. He can help sort of mentor those younger players and so from that perspective, there’s great comfort level among players and staff.”

[MORE: Blackhawks bolster depth with flurry of moves]

As for that speed and great skating, how much will be affected by Sharp’s hip surgery. Both Sharp and Bowman said he’s progressing just fine and Sharp will be ready for training camp — the surgery had a 4-5-month recovery window. Sharp said he’s, “pushing it pretty hard in the gym, and I’ve been on the ice in full equipment skating. I don’t anticipate any problems going forward.”

“I still have a ton of time to be ready for Day 1 and be ready for training camp,” Sharp continued. “I had got the surgery toward the end of [March] and that provided me with a ton of time… not to just back to the level I was at in March but it also allows me time to build my body back up to where I can play a season. I’ve played a lot of hockey, I know where I have to be physically and mentally to start the season. The time I’ve given myself is plenty.”

So where does Sharp end up in the lineup? As of now, Brandon Saad is penciled in as Jonathan Toews’ left wing. Nick Schmaltz, who played some with Patrick Kane last season, will likely get the first shot on Kane’s wing when the season begins. Sharp finished his 2014-15 postseason playing on the Blackhawks’ third line, and that’s probably where he could start this fall.

Sharp had several options this free agency. Like Brian Campbell last season, he took a lot less money to return to the Blackhawks. Much like his paycheck, his role will be different this time, too. But it’s a familiar place full of familiar faces, and whatever role Sharp takes on in order to win another Cup, he said he’s willing to play it.

“I expect to be 100 percent ready to go from Day 1, to contribute in any role Joel [Quenneville] puts me in and I’ll do the best I can,” Sharp said. “I look back to my time in Chicago, being a part of three different teams, all three times I played in a different spot. Things move around, there’ll be changes and combination, but I’m open and ready for anything.”

What to make of Blackhawks blockbuster deals

What to make of Blackhawks blockbuster deals

Before the clock struck noon on a day Chicago was hosting its first ever NHL Draft, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman sent shockwaves throughout the city and hockey world by completing a pair of blockbuster trades within an hour of each other.

The first was dealing three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona, and the second involving Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad in a swap of talented wingers with Columbus.

This comes two days after the Blackhawks announced Marian Hossa will miss the 2017-18 campaign with a progressive skin disorder. That's three core players gone in the blink of an eye.

Who's ready for a new era in Chicago?

Rather than maximizing a championship window that was viewed as closing quickly, Bowman has elected to take a long-term approach and it might not be the worst idea.

There's no doubt the loss of Hjalmarsson, who remains one of the most underrated blue liners in the league, and Panarin, who finished in the top-10 in scoring among forwards in both of his first two NHL seasons, will sting.

But there's a good chance the Blackhawks wouldn't have been able to reward them with the pay raises they deserve after their contracts expire following the 2018-19 season, and that certainly played a huge role in the decision to head in a new direction.

In reacquiring Saad, the Blackhawks finally give Jonathan Toews that reliable left-winger they've desperately lacked since Saad was shipped out of town in 2015, providing balance throughout the top-six. Saad is also locked up for the next four years at a $6 million cap hit that will look better as time goes by.

For the last two years, the Blackhawks were known as a one-line scoring team thanks to the chemistry developed between Patrick Kane and Panarin.

The second-half emergence of Nick Schmaltz and familiarity Kane has developed with center Artem Anisimov has allowed Panarin to become expendable in their quest to solve their top-line woes. And that's not a bad consolation line, especially when you consider top prospect Alex DeBrincat could also be in the cards as early as this season.

On the back end, the Blackhawks receive a 24-year-old defenseman in Connor Murphy, who's also signed for the next four years at a $3.85 million cap hit, and carries a right-handed shot, something they've needed more of in the organization. While there will certainly be growing pains under Joel Quenneville, Murphy's ceiling is fairly high and gives the Blackhawks some speed coming out of their own zone.

In making both of these deals, the Blackhawks got younger in their attempt to keep up with a league that relies more on speed, addressing a few areas that Nashville exposed during their first-round sweep of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

And while they may have sacrificed two key players in the short-term, the Blackhawks executed a plan that should keep the perceived championship window open longer than expected.