CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks are still searching for a No. 2 center and likely will fill the key role internally for the third straight season.
The answer, thus far, hasn't been found in free agency and might not arrive via trade before the 2012-13 season starts. That means they could again go with a combination of undersized forwards Patrick Kane and Marcus Kruger if no other prospects prove they're ready during training camp.
Center - CHI
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 66
SOG: 253 | +/-: 7
The Blackhawks have quite a bit of depth at center in the system, including four prospects selected in the first round of the past three NHL drafts: Teuvo Teravainen (No. 18 in 2012), Mark McNeill (No. 18 in 2011), Phillip Danault (No. 26 in 2011) and Kevin Hayes (No. 24 in 2010).
"A few years back, we identified center as a position that we wanted to grow some guys into that [role], and I think we've seen in the last couple drafts we've got some guys who are going to be high-end players," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said Friday, the last day of a prospects camp featuring all four of those centers. "Some of them aren't too far away, which is a good thing for us. We've seen a few of them even play the wing here just for some different looks, because they can't all play center."
The 17-year old Teravainen can play anywhere up front. He really stood out at center at camp, but needs to add strength and will head back to Finland for another year of development. The 19-year old McNeill, meanwhile, got to sample what it's like playing the wing in his second prospects camp. He even played wing for Teravainen at times and didn't look out of place.
"I had a few games [at wing] here and there in junior, but mostly I played center," McNeill said. "That's the good thing about being here and getting a chance to play wing and learn that role. It's definitely something they want me to take a look at, wing and center ... just to have both of those tools in the toolbox. It'll be good for me down the road."
It would also be nice for Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who likes flexible forwards to shuffle into different roles while he searches for productive combinations.
Bowman also mentioned Danault and Hayes as players who stood out, so it should be an interesting competition come training camp to see how the young centers stack up.
The Hawks have other options as well.
First is 21-year old Brandon Pirri, a second-round pick in 2009 (No. 59) who had a couple of brief call-ups with the Hawks and is always on the tip of Bowman's tongue when talking about prospects. Then there's 19-year old winger Brandon Saad, who tried his hand at center during his second prospects camp.
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Saad, a second-round pick (No. 43) in 2011, never played center before. However, he's expected to compete for an NHL roster spot this fall up front after starting last season as a winger with the Hawks then returning to play in the Ontario Hockey League. Likely sensing the need for another center on the second unit, Chicago asked Saad to try it.
Saad said the results were pretty good, considering he was just warming up to the position. He might even give it a whirl this fall to see if he's good enough to center star wingers Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
"It's something I'm willing to try for sure," Saad said. "Just to be helpful and play as many positions as I can is something I'm willing to do."
Should that happen, it won't be an easy competition.
Last year was Kruger's first full season, Kane looked very good at times playing center, and the pool of prospects knocking on the door are all gunning for the same goal.
Aiding their motivation will be the fact Chicago has given a number of rookies important roles during the past two seasons, including scrappy forward Andrew Shaw, a 2011 fifth-round pick.
Will they dip into the system this time to pull out an effective two-way center for the second line?
The prospects themselves are hoping that's the case.
"That's definitely a goal," said Hayes, who will return to Boston College for his third season if he doesn't stick with the Hawks. "You read about it. You hear about it. I'm just going to stay consistent and hopefully that's something I'll be able to grasp. It's a great competition. I'm great buddies with Danault and buddies with McNeill. I mean, we all want that spot ... but it's only going to be one of us."
The question is, which one ... if any?
In the NHL now, it's not as far-fetched as it used to be for young centers to make a positive impact. Look no further than the New Jersey Devils, who got all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season with 22-year old rookie center Adam Henrique in a prominent role.
"That's a guy right there ... I want to sort of follow in his footsteps," said McNeill, who at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds is already big enough for the NHL. "[As a prospect], you try to make a jump like that and make an impact on a team as best as you can and show you can help them."