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With patience, prospects could pay dividends for Blackhawks at center

by Joe Rajchel / Chicago Blackhawks
Phillip Danault is among the Blackhawks deep corps of centers (Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks).

During the offseason, there was a major influx of center talent in the Western Conference: Anaheim acquired Ryan Kesler, the Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza, and St. Louis lured Paul Stastny away from Colorado.

The Blackhawks were able to sign veteran Brad Richards, freshly off a run to the Stanley Cup Final with the New York Rangers. However, due to salary cap restrictions, the majority of the team's center help in the near future will have to come from the pipeline.

While the main focus is on Finnish phenom Teuvo Teravanien, four of the team's last five first-round draft picks have been centers, including Nick Schmaltz, 2014's top pick. In due time, these prospects will be winning faceoffs and helping Chicago compete for years to come. For now, however, there needs to be time for development.

Among this potential group of players are 2011 first-round picks Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill, both of whom just completed their first full season with the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League.

Danault knows that the point is coming in his career where he has to stand out if he wants to get a full-time promotion, but before he is ready to make the jump, he recognizes there are still parts of his game that need to be addressed.

“I need to be better on faceoffs—that's an aspect where I need to be perfect,” said Danault. “Hopefully in the next couple of years I will be there, but this upcoming year is a big one for me, for sure.”

McNeill has gone through a common transition for a prospect climbing the ranks: drafted at one position, but moved around the lineup. Andrew Shaw, for instance, was drafted out of the Ontario Hockey League as a center, but broke into the NHL as a winger, and has since been moved back.

“[Head Coach] Ted Dent and [Associate Coach] Mark Osiecki show a lot of faith in me and play me at center and wing. I run a lot of looks and I enjoy that,” McNeill said. “Personally, I feel more comfortable playing right wing; I have played that the most the last couple of seasons, and I’ve really enjoyed it. “

Having an offensive touch and the ability to win faceoffs used to be enough to get a chance at the NHL, but prospects entering farm systems now are learning that a more complete game is needed.

“[It is essential to] play both ways, for sure. [You have] to play all three zones to be successful. I am working on that day in and day out,” Schmaltz said.

Even a player like Danault, who is attending his fourth prospect camp, knows that there is always something to improve upon when it comes to becoming a two-way center.

“My defensive play got better [in Rockford]. We started off with a bad penalty kill, but by the end we did a great job,” he said. “That was really important for me, [since] it is a big part of my game.”

The organization is stressing this development to players at all levels. Vincent Hinostroza, a sixth-round pick in 2012, just completed his freshman season at the University of Notre Dame and said that he hears from the front office about facets of his game that can be improved.

“Coming to college, they focus a lot on playing both ends of the ice. That helped my game a lot because if you play good defense, it creates more offense,” said Hinostroza. “They (Blackhawks hockey operations) come watch games during the season and give us feedback about what need to work on.”

Being a skilled two-way center is a major key in cracking into the NHL roster, but speed and strength are also big components of getting that done.

“The speed [at this level] is definitely quicker than I am used to, and the players are big and strong, so I will have to be ready for that,” said Schmaltz. “I need to get stronger physically, so that’s a big thing for me.”

Patience is a keyword that prospects in the organization hear a lot, as they learn the importance of taking each level step by step. According to McNeill, his first season in Rockford helped him realize what playing at the next level would be like.

“The adjustment I had to make was that I was now playing against men, not against little kids anymore,” he said. “It’s a faster pace; everyone is bigger, stronger, faster. Once I got adjusted to that, I became more comfortable and my game came along well.”

There is a chance that before the end of next season, one or two of these names will be stitched onto Blackhawks sweaters. For others, that dream is still a few years away. What can be assured is that the future of the center position is strong within the organization.

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