When Brandon Pirri says he should be the Chicago Blackhawks' No. 2 center this season his intent isn't to sound cocky or to step out of line.
Pirri's feeling that he should be the one to play between Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp is instead born out of experience, confidence in his ability, and the understanding that he is one of the reasons Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman never sought to fill the job through a trade or free agency this summer.
"It's something I think I've earned the opportunity to do and I have to take advantage of it," Pirri told NHL.com. "I want to make that jump and I think I'm ready."
Pirri, 22, led the American Hockey League in scoring last season with 75 points in 76 games for the Rockford IceHogs. He has spent the past three seasons turning himself into a two-way center in the AHL. He said his defense has improved dramatically, evidenced by the fact Rockford coach Ted Dent was putting him out late in games for defensive-zone faceoffs.
If Pirri can convince Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville he is ready, that his defensive game now matches his offensive ability to the point he can slide in at No. 2 behind captain Jonathan Toews, the rest of Chicago's lineup can take shape from there with little to no change from this spring, when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
Pirri's emergence would allow Quenneville to keep Sharp on his preferable left side instead of in the middle and let Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw form two-thirds of what would likely be a dangerous third line. Quenneville said Saad also will be given a chance to become the No. 2 center because he's played the position prior to getting to Chicago.
With Pirri in the middle on the second line, Quenneville could keep Marcus Kruger, a long shot to be the No. 2 center, away from a prominent 5-on-5 role so he stays fresh for his penalty-killing duties. Michal Handzus would slide into a fourth-line role, which over the course of an 82-game season is better suited for the 36-year-old veteran.
"Could [Pirri] do it? I think he could, but that's a big job, and with him we're looking for that consistency," Quenneville told NHL.com. "We know he's capable of doing a lot of good things offensively and defensively he's improved over the last few years, but now game in and game out getting to that level of predictability that we want, that's going to be the challenge. I think he's capable of it for sure, so he's one guy under consideration."
Pirri is doing what he can to back up his own belief this summer. Instead of going back home to Toronto and training with former NHL player turned noted workout leader Gary Roberts, which Pirri had done the past two summers, he moved into left wing Brandon Bollig's downtown apartment and is training at United Center with Blackhawks strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman.
"I really wanted to make an impression with all the Blackhawks brass," Pirri said. "I want to be around. I want them to see my face all the time and think of me. I've been working hard in the gym and I'm trying to make an impression."
Pirri said it was his idea to live in Chicago this summer.
"Working out with Paul, who is a terrific trainer, and just being around, being in the city, I think shows that I'm willing to give up going back home and spending time with my family because this is really what I want," he said.
He isn't sure if his decision has registered with the Blackhawks, but he is confident it will make a difference when he gets to training camp and his becomes a familiar face.
"In the end it's my job to force their hand into saying, 'This kid deserves to be here and he deserves to play with these two great players [Sharp and Hossa],'" Pirri said. "That's what I'm working for this summer. I want to make Joel's and Stan's decision easy. I want them to say, 'He's performed and he's earned the chance.'"
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