Chicago, IL — In this part of the series I’m continuing to look at the center position of the Blackhawks. While I don’t think it is the primary need of this team it is a very important position and could be a key to the Hawks advancing further in the playoffs than the round one exits they had the past two seasons.
In this part I will look at the RFA’s this year and the Blackhawks up and comers from the junior prospects and those from the AHL and what the likely possibility is of them making the team. I will give you my scouting reports on the prospects and how they could fit in on the Blackhawks.
Let me start with the easiest part first – the RFA’s. Let me tell you this is very slim pickings for Centers. The biggest name in this category is Matt Duchene who is really a winger first and probably should be used there. His defensive zone skills are not really what they should be for a center. If you were going to go this route you’d probably be better off with Kane at center.
There is an intriguing name on this list who is an Avalanche that being Ryan O’Reilly. Let me stop this right here Colorado has tons of cap space and will not be letting O’Reilly leave the Rocky Mountain state so no use getting excited over this one because it is not going to happen.
The other interesting name is Sam Gagner who the Blackhawks should be very familiar with. It seems like half of his goals were scored against them, not really I’m being sarcastic but it sure at the time seemed that way. Gagner does have familiarity with Patrick Kane since both played for the London Knights in the OHL before their NHL lives began. While I’m sure the chemistry with Kane could be electric I’m not sure that Gagner has shown consistency. Let us not forget while his numbers this year are impressive they were mostly accumulated in a 15 game spurt. Given his youth and consistency I’m not sure he would be the best solution for the Hawks. The Oilers have more cap space than the Blackhawks so I see this as going nowhere.
Not to worry the Hawks have plenty of prospects of their own who could possibly make the team especially at a weak center ice position. So who are these fresh faces that could be donning the Indianhead jersey next fall?
Let’s take a look first at the centers that the Blackhawks have signed contracts with and who I think will have the best shot at making the roster probably as the 4th line center. Brandon, Pirri, Mark McNeill, Philip Danault, David Gilbert & recently signed Rob Flick I will focus on.
Brandon Pirri – Now Hawks fans should be somewhat familiar with this player. Pirri was brought in last year to compete in the pre-season but was beat out of the lineup by Marcus Kruger. Pirri was also part of the black aces. Pirri in all likelihood will be brought into the 2012 training camp to compete again for the center ice position. Pirri was drafted in the 2nd rd in 2009. The scouting report I have on him is that he is a very good offensive center. In fact he led the Rockford Icehogs this past year with 56 points 23G/33A +9. He is a skilled playmaker and good skater. The negatives on Pirri are he is small and the defensive part of his game still need work which could explain why Kruger was chosen over Pirri last year. If Pirri wants to stay he needs to impress coach Q on the defensive side of the puck. He also needs to work on his face – off prowess. Still he has a good shot at competing this summer to make the Hawks and I would consider him the front runner to make the team. He is currently on a two-way contract and will be a 870K cap hit if he makes the team. The time could not be better for Pirri to impress with the Hawks needing help up the middle.
Mark McNeill – For most of the year McNeill played in the CHL with the Prince Albert Raiders. He had 71 points last year (31G/40A) -10 before being assigned to Rockford. The reports I have seen say he is the most physically ready for the NHL. He will also not be pushed around or back down from a fight which should endear him with coach Q. He is a well-rounded player that has the size to compete along the boards and high traffic areas as well. Hmm could he be the net front presence the Hawks need? Maybe. The negatives are his overall consistency which accompanies all youth and focus. McNeill is currently under a two-way contract and would cost the Hawks 1.1 in cap hit if he were to make the team. He was drafted 1st rd in 2011 and has an excellent chance to make the team at some point. If he works hard he could one day be the power forward second line center the Hawks so desperately are searching for. There is no question he will be brought in again this year at camp to compete; the rest is up to Mark. The Hawks will take a good long look at him since he was drafted in rd 1. Look for him to battle it out with Pirri and Kruger. It has also been rumored that several NHL teams have expressed interest in him so he could also be used as trade fodder if the Hawks feel he will not be making their squad any time in the future.
Phillip Danault – Another first round draft pick, Danault also plays LW which gives him great flexibility. He played the majority of last year with the Victoriaville Tigres where he amassed 71 points (18G/53A) +11. My scouting reports of Danault are he is a very hard worker both on and off the ice. He has the utmost character. He is captain material so I’ve heard with his leadership skills and work ethic and in fact captained the Tigres in the last two seasons. Danault is a good two-way player already which the Hawks could use. He is also very good at the face off circle which again killed the Blackhawks last year. He was chosen in the 1st round in 2011 and is currently signed to a two-way contract and would cost the Hawks 994K to the cap hit. He sounds like a Jonathan Toews in the making which I’m sure the Hawks would be thrilled if he achieved half the success of Toews. Look for Danault to be brought in to compete against Pirri, McNeill & Kruger at camp. While I think McNeill and Pirri maybe ahead of Danault I never discount hard work and character. This kid could surprise people.
David Gilbert – Is a long shot he was drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He split last year’s time between the AHL Rockford IceHogs and the ECHL Toledo Walleye. He is said to have Kane like abilities with the puck and can handle it like it has Velcro to his stick. He is said to have great on ice vision and play making skills as well. The negative is he is small and could still be growing. Also there are questions regarding his work ethic. He is currently signed with the IceHogs and will probably see another year with them but this kid could make noise at some point down the road.
Rob Flick – Who just recently penned a three-year deal with the Hawks for 582K a year if he makes the big club. Flick spent most of last year like Gilbert split between the IceHogs and the Walleye. He was drafted in the 4th round in 2010. My scouting report on him is that he is a big physical center with very good puck skills. Flick probably needs more time in the AHL to develop but like Gilbert could be a force down the road with the Hawks.
The Hawks have a number of other prospects in the system like David Toews, Kevin Hayes, Byron Froese, Joakim Nordstrom of the Swedish Elite League. Yes David is Jonathan’s kid brother and he is recovering from an injury so don’t look for him to share the lineup with his big bro anytime in 2012. Kevin Hayes is Jimmy Hayes little bro too. Kevin does not have the size of Jimmy but is still big look for him to gain more valuable experience in Rockford in 2012. Also Chris DiDeminco’s contract is coming up so the Hawks will have to either re-sign him or let him go. Remember DiDeminico was part of the deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs that sent Versteeg there and brought Stalberg to Chicago.
Of all of these prospects I look for Pirri or McNeill to crack the Blackhawks line up in 2012. I believe these two have the best chances out of all of the Hawks prospects right now. Danault I give another year but he is such a hard worker he may pull a Andrew Shaw and surprise us. McNeill and Danault are both still eligible for juniors in 2012 so the Hawks may give them both another year of development unless they really shine in camp. They will all be battling it out and if solid defensively and good skills at the face – off dot one of these kids could make the starting rotation but for right now it looks like the battle will be between Kruger and Pirri. Whether there is a spot for each of them is the question. There maybe if free agents prove to expensive and reasonable trades do not develop.
The Blackhawks will have around the 19th pick in round one of the 2012 NHL entry draft and could possibly take a center although I view this as unlikely. I see the Hawks taking either a goalie or d-man in the first round. Even if they were to take a center here they would not be in a position to help the Hawks this year.
In the next installment I will take a look at the wingers the Hawks could look at if they were to go with the Patrick Kane at 2nd line center plan and who would work out best there for the Hawks. My final summary of who would be best for the Blackhawks at the Center ice position and the rumors regarding a Dave Bolland trade. Is it a good idea to trade Bolland and how likely it is that it will happen. Hope you have enjoyed the reading and Happy Puck Drops!
all cap information was taken from www.capgeek.com