Laurent Dauphin

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.

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.

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Niklas Hjalmarsson has been part of the Blackhawks’ renaissance since the rebuild began in the mid-2000s, a longtime steady presence on the blue line who has had some clutch moments in the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cup runs. But on Friday, the player with one of the Blackhawks’ best contracts was sent packing.

Hjalmarsson was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin on Friday morning. With Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks give up a tremendous defenseman with a winning pedigree.

“Niklas’ contributions to the three Stanley Cup championship teams are well known but his dependability as a teammate, selfless attitude and the way he represented the Chicago Blackhawks on and off the ice are what made him such a beloved member of the organization,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “He made his debut in Chicago in 2008 and quietly established himself as one of the toughest competitors in franchise history. We wish he and his family continued success.”

The 30-year-old defenseman has two years remaining on his current contract, which carries a $4.1 million cap hit. The 24-year-old Murphy has five years remaining on his current contract ($3.85 million cap hit). Dauphin is in the final year of his current entry-level contract ($745,000). According to CapFriendly, if Dauphin plays for the Rockford IceHogs this season, the Blackhawks can save $250,000 in cap space.

But this isn’t about money as much as the Blackhawks needing to get younger on defense. Murphy has played all four of his NHL seasons with the Coyotes. Last season he had two goals and 15 assists in 77 games.

Still, giving up Hjalmarsson is a tough one. Hjalmarsson has been a strong, steady presence for the Blackhawks. He once again led the team in blocked shots (181). Plenty of bumps, bruises and pain come with that job description but despite that, Hjalmarsson hasn’t missed much time. Since the 2012-13 season Hjalmarsson has missed just 12 games, and just four of those have been due to injury (suspected back injury last season).

The Blackhawks’ defense looked older and slower in their brief postseason run against the Nashville Predators, and they certainly have to start moving toward the future. But with Hjalmarsson playing at the level he has the past few seasons, his absence will hurt.