CHICAGO -- After winning the Stanley Cup twice in four seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks are searching for a more permanent solution at center for their second line.
While the rest of their lineup appears set, the coveted space playing in the middle of stars like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa remains vacant as the Blackhawks turn their eyes toward the 2013-14 season. Not even the re-signing of 36-year-old veteran Michal Handzus solves the issue, even though he played well in that role for much of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and re-signed for a salary cap-friendly $1 million on a one-year deal, according to Capgeek.com.
Handzus had arm surgery after the Cup run but is expected to be ready for training camp in September. However, he'll be used initially as a versatile depth forward -- the role he played after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the NHL Trade Deadline in April.
"Probably the way we envisioned [Handzus] coming to our team at that time of the season is probably where we will begin this next season, where he'll have to work his way up and maybe give somebody else that [second line center] opportunity," coach Joel Quenneville said at Chicago's prospects camp last week. "We're certainly happy to retain him and have that ingredient that no matter where you play [him], it's going to be an effective line."
The question, then, is who will be that "somebody else" Quenneville talked about?
The best odds initially appear to belong to Brandon Pirri, a 22-year old center who won the John B. Sollenberger Trophy last season as the leading scorer in the American Hockey League. Playing for the Rockford IceHogs, Chicago's AHL affiliate, Pirri played in all 76 games and finished with 75 points. His 53 assists tied for the league lead, and Pirri also posted a plus-11 rating.
Pirri was picked in the second round (No. 59) in the 2009 NHL Draft, has played three seasons in Rockford and logged seven games with the Blackhawks during that span. He didn't participate in prospects camp last week, but the 6-foot, 183-pound center will have a lot of eyes on him at training camp.
"We're an organization that believes in putting the best players on the ice regardless of when you were drafted or what round or what year," general manager Stan Bowman said at prospects camp. "We're looking for guys who can help us."
Chicago has taken centers with its first-round draft picks in three of the past four years, amassing four prospects likely to be NHL-ready in the near future: Kevin Hayes (2010), Mark McNeill (2011), Phillip Danault (2011) and Teuvo Teravainen (2012). McNeill and Danault are thought to be the closest to the NHL after finishing outstanding junior careers.
Still, the more likely development path for each will be starting out in Rockford.
Hayes, who's now 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, won't be at training camp. He's heading back to Boston College for his senior year following a frustrating junior season marred by four surgeries to repair blood vessels in his leg, which ended his season. Hayes has shifted to left wing at BC, but Bowman likes the added versatility.
"I think he's really a playmaker," Bowman said. "That's kind of what his strength is, so whether he plays wing or center it's nice to have that guy with [size]. Kevin's a big kid. We really like his improvement. He's really gotten better the last couple years."
Teravainen, the 18th player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft, did not attend prospects camp and will spend another season adding size and strength to his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame while playing in the SM-Liiga, the top league in Finland. Bowman said Teravainen will center Jokerit's top line and has a bright future in Chicago.
Bowman also likes 6-foot, 195-pound Drew LeBlanc, who won the Hobey Baker Award last season as the nation's top college player at St. Cloud State. After signing a one-year deal with Chicago in April, the 24-year old LeBlanc is a restricted free agent who Bowman plans to sign and give a serious look in the fall.
Another dark horse is 6-foot, 180-pound Garret Ross, whom the Blackhawks selected in the fifth round (No. 139) in the 2012 draft (the same exact spot they took Andrew Shaw in 2011). Ross played left wing for the majority of his Ontario Hockey League career, but moved to center last year after the OHL trade deadline. The 21-year-old played two seasons in Saginaw with 20-year-old Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad and broke out last season with 44 goals and 46 assists in 61 OHL games.
"Obviously I've got a pretty strong lineup to crack [in Chicago], but that's just more motivation to work harder and get in there," Ross said. "It's out of my hands. The only thing I can do is come out and work hard, show the organization what I'm made of [at training camp]."