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Struggling Vermette X-factor for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger /

CHICAGO -- Center Antoine Vermette was one of the top players available at the NHL Trade Deadline, but his addition to the Chicago Blackhawks hasn't provided much of a boost.

The hope, for Vermette and the Blackhawks, is that he becomes a bigger difference-maker in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Work in progress," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said when asked about Vermette recently. "Scoring a goal might help him be more confident with the puck. He's improving as far as knowing the familiarity of the routes and where [his] linemates are. That's what we're looking for, [and] maybe offensively get a goal, and be a little more confident in the puck area."

Vermette's performance has been underwhelming after the Arizona Coyotes traded him to Chicago on March 1 for defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Vermette, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, has provided virtually no offense for the Blackhawks; he had two points in his first 11 games, assists in a game against the San Jose Sharks.

His puck-possession numbers improved slightly with Chicago, but the results from that improvement have not translated into scoring.

Vermette came to the Blackhawks with a reputation as a faceoff expert, but he has not excelled in that department. He won 56 percent of his faceoffs for the Coyotes this season, but is about 5 percentage points less after the trade. The decline resulted in a recent shift to right wing on the second line for a stretch of five games, and Vermette has played sparingly on special teams.

"I want to contribute to the team," said Vermette, who hadn't played either wing since his first five NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators. "If you asked me, I'm certainly more comfortable at center position. That's my natural position. I've been playing there pretty much all my career, so there is a preference there. But it is what it is."

The Blackhawks needed Vermette to step up offensively. They've been without injured right wing Patrick Kane since surgery to repair his left clavicle Feb. 25, and Vermette was supposed soften the blow.

That's not exactly how it worked out, but the playoffs are ahead. There is time for Vermette to help the Blackhawks make another deep postseason run. It starts with his experience as a center.

Unlike last season, when Chicago lost a seven-game series to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks are well stocked down the middle. Vermette is one of nine forwards who can play center.

Brad Richards, one of those centers, missed the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury but will be ready for the first series. It's unclear what position Vermette will play, but Quenneville said there's a chance for him at center. Either way, it's an opportunity to win a championship that wasn't available in Arizona.

"It's very exciting as a player," Vermette said "[The playoffs are] obviously the place you want to be. We can have high expectations out of us, for sure. We don't want to get carried away. There's a lot of good teams out there, but this is a really good group."

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