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Blackhawks test Saad as second-line center

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO – Brandon Saad should be the envy of the NHL right now.

One season removed from earning a spot at left wing on the Chicago Blackhawks' top line as a rookie, the 20-year old Saad is first in line to fill one of the most coveted jobs in the League. He started training camp playing center on the second line for the defending Stanley Cup champions, lining up between veteran stars Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

Aside from a brief look at prospects camp a couple years ago, it's the first time Saad has played in the middle in his entire career, dating back to his youth hockey days.

"I'm pretty excited," he said. "Center is usually one of the best players on the ice and you get to come up the middle and you have to play well defensively. It's going to be something new for me, but I usually pride myself on playing well defensively, so hopefully that can help out."

He's also been practicing faceoffs following team workouts dating back to last season, when he'd step in for Jonathan Toews whenever the Blackhawks' captain got tossed out of the circle.

"That's probably going to be one of the biggest things [playing center] is working on that, but that just comes with time and putting in the work," Saad said. "The rest of it is being aware out there, but faceoffs is something you need to work at."

The Blackhawks have put in a lot of work trying to find a permanent solution in the middle of their second line. They've struggled to fill that role during the past few seasons, despite all that talent on the flanks. There's a bevy of prospects waiting in line behind Saad, not to mention established NHL players such as Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and 36-year old veteran Michal Handzus, who played there in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville hopes the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Saad can stake his claim to the job.

That would accomplish a couple of things from an organizational aspect. It would allow a slew of center prospects to develop physically and mentally, including 22-year old rookie Brandon Pirri, 24-year old college free-agent acquisition Drew LeBlanc, and first-round talents Teuvo Teravainen (2012), Phillip Danault (2011), Mark McNeill (2011) and Ryan Hartman (2013).

It would also give Saad's impressive resume an added item, making him one of those elusive forwards that every coach loves -- one who's versatile enough to produce as a wing or a center.

"Center is a smart player on the ice," Saad said. "It's going to take an adjustment, but it's definitely part of it and I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's always good to be diverse and be able to play whatever positions. Hopefully I can add this to my game."

Quenneville first hinted at the move while wrapping up the team's prospects camp, when he told reporters Handzus wouldn't automatically start with Sharp and Hossa. He then named Saad as the leading candidate at that position during the annual fan convention a few weeks later.

Asked about it during training camp, the coach who's led the Blackhawks to a pair of Stanley Cup titles in 2010 and '13 explained his reasoning a little more.

"I think that versatility in playing more than one or two positions up front gives us more depth over time and sometimes, on a need basis, you've got to try different guys in different situations," Quenneville said. "We're in a position now where we still have some other guys who we know can play in that situation, [like] Handzus, Shaw, Kruger and some other options. I just think that [Saad] can play with top players and he has that ability to still get better in his game."

Now it's just a matter of watching the experiment unfold.

Two years ago, Quenneville's idea was to give Kane an extended run in the middle of that line, a move that started out decently enough but fizzled out over the course of the season. Last year it was former center Dave Bolland's turn; that also looked OK for a stretch before dissolving thanks to his extended injury absence heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now it's Saad's turn.

After losing his left-wing spot on the top line during the postseason – he was replaced midway through by newly re-signed power forward Bryan Bickell – this experiment is also the best way to get Saad back into the top six forwards.

As a rookie, Saad had 10 goals and 17 assists in 47 regular-season games, along with a plus-17 rating. He scored a goal and had five assists in the postseason. The hope now is that Saad's comfort and skill with the puck on his stick speeds the transition to center, where he's lacking only experience.

Having Sharp and Hossa on each side should also ease the transition.

"I would hope so," said Sharp, a sniper with playmaking hands. "I thought we had a couple good [scrimmage] games at Notre Dame [to start camp]. Whether that's a line to start the season, who knows at this point? But if it is, then we'll do our best to help him out. I thought he had a great season as a left winger last year, but it says a lot for Brandon that the coaches are willing to slide him over there and try it out."

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