Tanner Kero

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

Breaking news: when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators Saturday night it will be… Game 6 of 82 on the regular-season schedule.

No this is not an exact-some-measure-of-revenge game. That’s a silly notion that makes it sound like an early regular-season game will actually constitute some payback for the sweep the Blackhawks suffered in April. That was then. Right now, the Blackhawks are still trying to figure out the right second-line combination in the wake of Nick Schmaltz’s upper-body injury.

Schmaltz is close but he’ll be out again against the Predators. Tanner Kero, who finished Thursday’s game centering Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane, will be there to start against Nashville. The three had a decent spark in their few minutes’ together on Thursday and look to have it right away again vs. the Predators.

“Yeah, obviously they’re both playing well, they’re off to great starts,” Kero said. “You just want to help support them, you want to be moving the puck and making sure you’re getting to those areas in front of the net and supporting them all over the ice, try to get them the puck and make plays.”

Nashville certainly was bolstered by its Stanley Cup run last season but that didn’t change the Blackhawks’ perspective of the Predators.

“We’ve always had a ton of respect for Nashville and we’ve always had hard games against them," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Tight games, close games, fun games to be involved with — obviously our playoff series wasn’t fun at all — but we feel that we know how good they are. But league-wide it was good for our game, the enthusiasm that Nashville had for its Cup run was good for their market. I think everybody thought pretty good things about Nashville to begin with but certainly that validated it.”

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 nerves? Rookies holding their own alongside Blackhawks' veterans

What nerves? Rookies holding their own alongside Blackhawks' veterans

Ryan Hartman had two choices as he and Marian Hossa broke on a 2-on-1 vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins: keep the puck and take the shot yourself, or pass it to the guy who's scored 525 goals in his career.

He passed to Hossa, and if you saw Wednesday's game you know the result. But even if Hartman had taken the shot himself, he figured his line mate wouldn't get angry.

"That goal the other night, if I shot the puck I don't think Hoss would've had too many hard feelings about it. I think he would've understood I made a hockey play," Hartman said. "We're all professionals here, and I may have saw something that was open. But the right play was to get that across to him, and he scored a nice goal."

The on-ice choices are there for every player. But if you're a young guy playing with a veteran, you might weigh every decision that much more. The Blackhawks' rookies have lined up with the team's multi-Cup winners throughout this season, and while there might have been early jitters, most of the young guys have played well alongside the veterans.

"(For) every guy, it's a different story," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Certainly you don't want to try to make plays or try to get certain guys the puck because it's too noticeable and easy to defend. But there are certainly advantages of playing with those (veteran) guys. They're better with the puck, so make sure you guys keep the puck and we'll go to the net and keep it simple."

Hartman and Hossa have found some success on that third line. Nick Schmaltz has carved his niche with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Tanner Kero has worked well with Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin in Artem Anisimov's absence. For the rookies, it was important to just focus on the game, to just play hockey and trust their instincts. Still, there were some feelings of intimidation.

"Maybe a little at the start," Schmaltz said. "Maybe you're trying to get them the puck a little too much or forcing things that aren't there. You're not playing your game. You're a little shocked to be playing with those guys, but more and more you get comfortable with how they play and you realize it's another player. You try not to think about all the things they've done throughout their careers."

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Kero agreed.

"You're just looking around the dressing room and you see all those big names, all those great players and you're a little star struck right away," he said. "But once you're on the ice, you play hockey."

The dynamic in the Blackhawks' room helps, too. Regardless of how much individual players have won the team mentality always comes first. Every veteran started as a wide-eyed rookie, and they're willing to help and teach the new guys what they've learned over the years.

"I think as a young guy that's definitely something. You're really nervous coming in here, working with all those guys. You don't know whether you should say stuff, or ask a stupid question. But they made it really comfortable for all of us coming in," said Vinnie Hinostroza, who played with Toews a few games earlier this season. "All these guys have been so welcoming this year and really helped us make the adjustment."

The Blackhawks' rookies have been a big part of the team's success this season. Playing alongside guys who have won Stanley Cups, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies can be intimidating, but the Blackhawks' young players have handled it like they've been here for years.

"The goal is to win as a team every game and doesn't matter who's scoring. It's just that all these guys are unselfish, and you have to be a team-first guy to have the success they've had the last 10 years," Schmaltz said. "Everyone's buying in and everyone's team first."