Brandon Pirri has earned a shot at the hole Chicago has in the middle of the second line.
The Chicago Blackhawks have an opening at second-line center. That's no shock. The real surprise is who coach Joel Quenneville is touting as a front-runner for the position.
Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Michal Handzus, Brandon Pirri and Drew LeBlanc all figure to compete for the job this fall. Oh, and add Brandon Saad to that list.
Coach Joel Quenneville tossed Saad's hat into the ring at the Blackhawks convention last weekend. Quenneville gave the following explanation to ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers:
[Saad] is probably the guy we’re thinking maybe grab that spot, would be an option. It’s something we talked about as a staff late in the year. It’s something going into the season we could be exploring.
Wrong Brandon. Pirri is the guy who should get the longest look.
The 'Hawks put Saad in the middle back at prospects camp in 2011. However, this season's Calder trophy finalist has been exclusively a wing in his short career. It makes more sense to use Saad on the outside where his ability to fetch the puck can be utilized to its fullest.
If Saad had success at the position in juniors or the minors, a move to center might be intriguing. Since that hasn't been the case, what's notable is the fact that Quenneville seems so reluctant to give Pirri the inside track for the job.
Pirri is no Dave Bolland defensively. However, the Rat is in Toronto in part because he couldn't make enough happen in the opposing team's zone. While Kruger and Shaw have shown a lot of NHL value, neither has shown the offensive prowess of Pirri.
Remember: Saad, Kruger and Shaw were all down in Rockford with Pirri to begin last season. Stats aren't everything, but here are some interesting numbers from 2012-13:
Kruger, Shaw, Saad: 93 games, 24 goals, 22 assists.
Pirri: 76 games, 22 goals, 53 assists.
With all four players toiling in Rockford throughout the first half of the season, it was Pirri who led the quartet in scoring in that span. Pirri has the most offensive potential and is a natural center to boot.
Leading the AHL in scoring, as Pirri did last season, is no guarantee of NHL success. On the other hand, none of those other skaters were as effective at the center position from an offensive standpoint.
Pirri has upped his game in each of his three seasons with the IceHogs. He has developed a level of consistency and improved his defense. He is not a finished product by any means, but Pirri certainly deserves a chance to win a top-six slot in the middle.
Handzus is a stop-gap solution at best. Over an 82-game schedule, the veteran is not the answer. The best-case scenario is that one of the young bucks is able to quickly grow into the role.
The three center spots behind Jonathan Toews can be filled several ways by contenders young and old. The ultimate answers lay at training camp, but Pirri should get the first crack at the second line.