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Season Review: Centers

September 9, 2020, 10:10 AM ET [268 Comments]
Theo Fox
Chicago Blackhawks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Centers are up next in this blog series presenting 2019-20 season reviews by position. Here is the roll-out schedule:

* Today, 9/9: Centers
* Friday, 9/11: Wingers
* Monday, 9/14: Goalies
* Wednesday, 9/16: Coaches

ICYMI: Click here to view the season review of defensemen.

Again, while individual evaluations and grades aren’t being handed out, this series of blogs will provide a more holistic review. Each blog will conclude with a look ahead to the future.

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DEFINING ROLES

One scheme for defining center roles is 1C, 2C, 3C, and 4C. Another scheme is top 6, middle 6, and bottom 6.

For this past season and the upcoming one, defining 1C and 4C is easy: Jonathan Toews and David Kampf, respectively.

Toews is the perennial 1C until his game starts to markedly decline. Even if Patrick Kane’s line is considered the 1st line, the captain is unequivocally a top 6 center driving a line that is certainly 1st on most other teams.

Kampf is a pretty good 4C with his compete level, defensive awareness, faceoff aptitude, and shutdown capacity. Jeremy Colliton loves him some David Kampf so even if he plays him up to the 3rd line, Kampf is undoubtedly a bottom 6 center.

In contrast, the roles for Dylan Strome and Kirby Dach get murky for two reasons: Strome’s limitations that render him effective as an offensive center only and Dach’s emergence to leapfrog him in such a shorter timetable than expected.

Strome has skill to be a top 6 center with his vision, playmaking, and scoring touch. But so does Dach.

If Toews is 1C, then one of Strome and Dach will be 2C. Dach is arguably poised to snag that role with his immense growth during the shutdown and pronounced dedication to proper strength training this offseason with Kane’s trainer Ian Mack as documented in this Chicago Sun-Times article by Ben Pope.

While Dach’s postseason performance put on display things to be excited about as potentially the new franchise center to take the torch from Toews, Strome did very little to inspire confidence that he can help the team compete other than putting up offensive stats.

Even then, Strome struggled after he came back from an ankle injury and during the postseason. In addition, Strome’s subpar skating and defensive ability don’t make him a reasonable fit as a reliable 3C who can drive a line both defensively and offensively.

So if Toews. Dach, and Strome are top 6 centers but there’s only room for two of them, who slides down to 3C in this version of musical chairs?

Toews is still going strong so he’s not a 3C until he hits the twilight of his career which could be after his current contract expires and possibly a few years into his next one.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have Dach anchor the 3rd line but would that stunt what seems to be a rapid progression in his growth curve?

By process of elimination, that leaves Strome as 3C.

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BEING THE 3RD D-MAN

Would Strome be an effective 3C?

It depends on what the role of the 3C is.

Centers need to act as the 3rd defenseman being able to (A) patrol the entire length of the ice, (B) provide a defensive conscience, and (C) generate offense.

This role as the 3rd D-man is especially critical on the 3rd line as it allows the 1st and 2nd lines to be the primary drivers on offense. The 3C also has the charge of eating lots of minutes without being a defensive liability.

If the top 3 lines are clicking, then the 4th line can play a shutdown role in key situations with limited ice time and some capacity to chip in opportune -- and often backbreaking -- goals (see Matthew Highmore’s postseason performance as an example).

Breaking it down, Strome has the skillset to do C (generate offense) but has trouble with A (patrol the entire length of the ice) and B (provide a defensive conscience) when looking at the traits of the 3rd defenseman.

Dach, though, can provide A, B, and C. Assuming Dach has carved out his role as 2C moving forward, what would it take then for Strome to thrive as 3C?

Strome needs to have a combination of significant improvement in his skating and his defensive play and/or being flanked with wingers who can complement him and mask his shortcomings.

The other option is cutting bait with Strome, then invest in another pivot who has the tools to be an effective 3C.

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IMPROVING AT THE DOT

Faceoffs will always be a unit of measure for a center’s productivity or lack thereof.

During this past season and postseason, Chicago’s centers turned in the following faceoff percentages:

* Toews: 57.3% regular season (56.3% last season), 54.9% postseason
* Dach: 33.8% (n/a), 30.9%
* Strome: 47.7% (48.4%), 51.8 %
* Kampf: 52.3% (45.3%), 57.6%

Ryan Carpenter played some center and took a considerable amount of draws but he digressed tremendously after coming over from Vegas. He was 43.1% (regular season) and 28.0% (postseason) with the Hawks but 52.6% and 51.5% a year ago with the Golden Knights.

It is evident that taking draws is a deficiency for the centers beyond Toews and Kampf. Toews remains one of the best in the NHL while Kampf has shown a marked improvement from last season and was the best on draws in the small sample size of games versus Edmonton and Vegas.

Strome showed a negligible uptick from a season ago yet was over 50% in 9 postseason contests.

Dach was winning only a third of his draws during his rookie year and didn’t fare any better in the bubble.

Even though several centers have come and gone over the past decade, the common denominator for the last 7 seasons is development coach Yanic Perreault who specializes in faceoffs. Here is a 7-year snapshot of team faceoff conversions:

* 2019-20: 49.9% (17th)
* 2018-19: 49.5% (T-19th)
* 2017-18: 49.3% (20th)
* 2016-17: 47.5% (29th)
* 2015-16: 49.9% (23rd)
* 2014-15: 52.0% (5th)
* 2013-14: 52.0% (T-5th)

What happened going from 5th in 2013-14 and 2014-15 to the 20s and late teens over the next five seasons?

A major factor was having centers in 2013-14 and 2014-15 who could pull their weight at the dot:

* Marcus Kruger went 56.7% and 53.3% in those years.
* Peter Regin went 55.3% and 50.0% in those years.
* Michal Handzus went 49.5% in 2013-14.
* Brad Richards went 48.4% in 2014-15.
* Antoine Vermette went 50.0% with Chicago (56.0% with Arizona) in 2014-15.

The only center who was woefully bad at faceoffs in 2013-14 and 2014-15 was Joakim Nordstrom who cashed in at 37.0% and 20.0%.

Dach and Strome each need to boost their faceoff success rate. They both have size and can still add strength as youngsters. Size and strength could be useful in the circle.

Reaction time and placement of the puck to an advantageous spot for teammates is more difficult to enhance but not impossible.

Each center still needs linemates to either successfully corral the puck after a win or fight to get it back after a loss. Centers start the faceoffs but teammates have a collective duty to contest every puck until the pivots can rejoin the play.

No matter who the centers are, being in the upper echelon again in faceoffs would help the Blackhawks dictate the game more at both ends of the ice. Win the draw in the defensive zone and flip the ice. Win in the offensive zone and the attack begins.

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LOOKING AHEAD

So if Toews, Dach, and Kampf have cemented their roles as 1C, 2C, and 4C, that leaves Strome as the default 3C.

Again, for Strome to be the best 3C possible for the team, he would need to substantially improve his skating and his defense and/or have complementary wingers who can help their line cover the entire ice and defend.

But let’s say the Hawks decide to part ways with Strome by either electing to trade his RFA rights or acquire the requisite compensation if another team is willing to offer him a more favorable contract instead. Who then becomes 3C?

Nobody in the system is ready yet to take on that role as a full-time gig. Natural centers Philipp Kurashev and MacKenzie Entwistle need at least another year in the minors to marinate at an appropriate pace.

Pius Suter has pivot experience but is likely best as a winger, at least to start his NHL rookie year. He has the makings of an impact middle 6 winger but may not have the tools to drive an entire line as a center.

There’s a strong chance that Evan Barratt is groomed as a center. However, his skating isn’t strong like Strome yet he brings more to the rink in terms of compete level, agitation, and defensive acumen. Regardless, his ETA is likely at least two years away.

The other remaining center prospect in the system capable of playing 3C is Jake Wise who is further away than Barratt. Wise has been hampered by injuries before and after being drafted in 2018. He is best off playing out his eligibility at Boston University (he’s a junior now), then go pro after graduating.

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NEWS & UPDATES

Yesterday the NHL announced date changes to the draft with it now moved up earlier to October 6-7 which is a Tuesday and Wednesday. The original date was October 9-10 which is a Friday and Saturday.

The free agency period is set to open on October 9 instead.

As for loan updates, Pius Suter has been loaned to the GKC Lions in Switzerland and expected to return for training camp on November 17.

Oilers D prospect and Ontario native Evan Bouchard has been loaned to Sodertalje SK in Sweden. It will be interesting to see if the Blackhawks follow suit by having any of their U.S. and Canadian-born prospects play overseas on loan to get reps in before training camp.

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See you on the boards!

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