Centers of attention: Bowman boosts Hawks in middle

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Center Antoine Vermette made his Blackhawks debut in Monday's 5-2 win over Carolina at the United Center after being acquired from the Coyotes in a trade.

    Center Antoine Vermette made his Blackhawks debut in Monday's 5-2 win over Carolina at the United Center after being acquired from the Coyotes in a trade. Associated Press

 
By Brian Hedger
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 3/3/2015 6:41 PM

They signed Brad Richards, but that still wasn't enough to fill the Blackhawks' gap down the middle of the ice.

After losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Western Conference final, they learned a hard lesson. The Kings were loaded with centers, not to mention wingers with center experience, and it greatly helped L.A.

 

The Blackhawks would like to have that same advantage.

"It's always been the case, not necessarily (just) last year," said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, who added two more centers before Monday's NHL trade deadline. "We've talked about that a lot. The center-ice position is very important for us. You can never have too many."

That's the reason Antoine Vermette, 32, made his Blackhawks debut Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes, and why Andrew Desjardins, 28, will debut Friday against Edmonton. Vermette, who can play in all situations and is good on faceoffs, centered the top line for the Arizona Coyotes. Desjardins provided grit for the San Jose's fourth line.

Starting out, Vermette is centering the second line. Richards has moved to the third line -- and Andrew Shaw is on the right wing of that group now, where he's a better fit.

The Blackhawks didn't practice Tuesday, so it's unclear whether Desjardins will bump current fourth-line center Marcus Kruger to a wing, where he's played previously, or play the wing himself. Either way, the two checking lines now have four of six spots occupied by players with center experience.

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"You've got more guys in the middle," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's where you want to be strong at."

The trade that netted Desjardins sent former forward Ben Smith to the Sharks along with a seventh-round draft pick in 2017. Last season, injuries required Smith to log time in the middle of the second line during the regular season, and he played well.

This year, there wasn't a spot higher in the lineup than right wing of the fourth line. Smith has a salary-cap hit of $1.5 million, which is twice what Desjardins costs ($750,000). San Jose kept half of Desjardins' cap hit, which freed roughly $1 million in cap space for the Hawks, who could opt to not re-sign him in July.

In the meantime, Desjardins is intent on adding some toughness to the fourth line.

"I'm just looking to bring a hard, intense, gritty game," he said. "I'm going to try to just stick to how I play and how I do stuff on the ice, and that's just to be a hard guy and gritty."

Going into Friday's game, the Hawks' options at center are captain Jonathan Toews, Vermette, Richards, Shaw, Kruger, Desjardins and rookie Teuvo Teravainen, whose immediate future is foggy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That's a strong collection of middle men and certainly deeper than last season, when the Hawks faced the Kings without a clear-cut second center and aging veteran Michal Handzus playing more than his skills should have dictated.

"Whether it's injuries or whether it's style of play or having options for your coach, we've brought in some guys that can fit that role," Bowman said. "It's probably the strongest we've been at the center position in many years."

• Follow Brian on Twitter@BrianHedger.

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