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Zawaski: Blackhawks On Hunt For Second-Line Center

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Vernon Fiddler. (Getty Images)

Vernon Fiddler. (Getty Images)

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Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of The Spiegel and Mannelly...
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By Jay Zawaski-

(CBS) With the NHL’s free agency period beginning today at 11 a.m. Central time, the Blackhawks may have their eyes on more than one target. Their most glaring need is (say it with me!) a second-line center, and there are indications that they may be willing to sign or trade for a pretty big name.

The second-line center position has been one of the few holes in Chicago’s lineup since this era of Blackhawks hockey began in 2007-’08. Which center they will attempt to acquire is the mystery.

I can’t think of a single general manager in the league who keeps a tighter lid on his roster plans than Stan Bowman. While the Blackhawks always seem to be part of rumors, the actual acquisition is typically off the radar. For example, no one saw the Brandon Bollig or David Rundblad (remember him?) trades coming. Any idea on what Bowman would be an educated guess, at best.

Before I begin, I need to qualify a few points. First of all, the Blackhawks have virtually zero cap space. As it currently stands, they have just over $700,000 of cap space with only 21 (of 23) roster spots filled. Any signing would have to be accompanied by a trade.

I would expect Bowman to wait to make a trade until after he knows which center he’s secured. If he signs a center for $1 million, I don’t think fans would have to worry about Patrick Sharp leaving, but if he does sign a bigger name, a major roster player or two may have to go to make room. It’s also important to remember that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s expected new deals will kick in for the 2015-’16 season. They could be as high as $24 million combined, though I predict they will be closer to $20 million, so it’s just another long-term element that Bowman has to be cognizant of.

So without further ado, here are my educated guesses at who the Blackhawks may be targeting.

Paul Stastny

Free agent of the Colorado Avalanche

2013-’14 cap hit: $6.6 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: $7 million-plus

Stastny, the best center on the market, is the kind of player who could be worth losing Sharp. At 28, he’s entering his prime and has already posted five seasons of 50 points or more. His career high is 79 points. The Blackhawks have reportedly kicked the tires on Stastny. If he wants to sign in Chicago, it could be too good to pass up. The roster fallout, however, would be tremendous. Say goodbye to any combo of Sharp, Bryan Bickell, Johnny Oduya or Michal Rozsival.

Joe Thornton

Trade target on the San Jose Sharks

Cap hit: $6.750 million through 2016-17

The Sharks are reportedly looking to rebuild. Thornton and Patrick Marleau are expected to be moved this offseason. Thornton is one of the top playmakers in the league, and even at the age of 34, he averaged nearly a point per game. This deal would likely take the Sharks taking on some salary and some young Chicago talent going to San Jose.

Jason Spezza

Trade target on the Ottawa Senators

Cap hit: $7 million through 2014-15

Spezza wants to be traded, and the Senators are accommodating the center. Spezza has spent his entire 12-year career in Ottawa. In his prime, he was one of the best playmakers in the game. He’s been slowed by injury and age lately and is hardly worth the $7 million he’s due next season. Here’s an Spezza angle I haven’t mentioned, however. If the Blackhawks can swing a deal, that entire salary comes off the Chicago books after the 2014-’15 season. Yes, it would take trading another large contract, but the Blackhawks will have to do that before the 2015-’16 season to make room for the new Kane and Toews deals anyway. If Ottawa would absorb some of Spezza’s salary, it might make sense for one year.

Brad Richards

Free agent of the New York Rangers

2013-14 Cap Hit : $6.67 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: ???

The Rangers bought out Richards’ contract last week. During the playoffs, Richards was demoted to the fourth-line center role. He still had a productive regular season, registering 51 points in 82 games. He was dead even in Corsi and plus-2.5 percent in Corsi relative. He’s nowhere near the player he was in Tampa, but if he’s willing to sign an affordable deal with the Blackhawks, he could be one of the better options on the market.

Saku Koivu

Free agent of the Anaheim Ducks

2013-’14 cap hit: $2.5 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: $1 million-$2 million

Now we’re getting into “realistic territory.” A player like Koivu is the most realistic free agent outcome. He’s a 39-year old veteran who will likely be looking for one more shot at a Stanley Cup, and he may be willing to accept less money for that chance. He’s a shadow of his Montreal self and is a moderate upgrade from Michal Handzus. He’s as solid a locker room guy as there is (assuming you value such things) and could be seen as mentor for his fellow Finn Teuvo Teravainen. I’m not sure how much these things actually matter, but I’m sure it’s something the Blackhawks would take into account if they are indeed interested in Koivu.

Olli Jokinen

Free agent of the Winnipeg Jets

2013-14 cap hit: $4.5 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: $2.5 million-$3 million

Like Koivu, Jokinen is a veteran likely seeking a title. Unlike Koivu, he’s never won a Stanley Cup. At 35, his best days are far behind him, but he put up 43 points and played all 82 games for the Jets last season. He also brings a physical element to the game and could be the big body in front of the net the Blackhawks have lacked. He was a negative Corsi player (44.9 percent, minus-1.1 percent CF Relative), but he could see an upswing if he’s paired with Kane and Brandon Saad.

Earlier in his career, Jokinen was a bit of a locker room cancer, but he matured later in his career. He’s outspoken and opinionated, which may not be ideal for the Hawks.

Mathieu Perreault

Free agent of the Anaheim Ducks

2013-’14 cap hit: $1.050 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: $1 million-$2 million

The Ducks didn’t qualify the 26-year-old center, which makes him an unrestricted free agent. This would be a move I really like. Perrault is a positive Corsi player (51.6 percent last season) that posted 43 points in 69 games. He’s a guy who could certainly play on the bottom six when Teravainen proves to be ready for the second-center role. He’s not a household name, but he’s a quality player with his best days likely still ahead of him.

Vernon Fiddler

Free agent of the Dallas Stars

2013-’14 cap hit: $1.8 million

Expected 2014-’15 cap hit: $1 million-$1.8 million

Fiddler is far from ideal, but he’s closer to realistic. He’s a versatile and heady player but lacks the overall ability to be called a true second-line center. Last season, he posted 23 points in 76 games. He hasn’t registered 30 points since 2009-’10. He wins 52 percent of his faceoffs and plays in all situations, including the penalty kill.

We’ll find out in short order just what Stan Bowman has up his sleeve. Keep it tuned to 670 The Score and check my Twitter account for all the latest in Blackhawks offseason news.

Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.

 

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