Second-line center a question mark

CHICAGO – With the Hawks entering an offseason of uncertainty, the team’s situation at second-line center looms as one of its biggest question marks.

A hole since last summer, the Hawks never really filled it to anyone’s liking.

Two in-house players emerged as possible candidates moving forward, Patrick Kane and Marcus Kruger. Kane was a first time center and Kruger is just 21 years old, so there is room for improvement for both.

Kruger did his best playing in a position he might not be ready for until a year or two from now. The Hawks asked too much of him, yet he did more than an admirable job. But it wasn’t long into the playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes that he was replaced by Kane, who also had some good moments during the season.

“I like playing center,” Kane said as the team cleaned out its lockers on Wednesday. “You come up the ice with a lot of speed in the middle. It’s kind of natural for me to do that anyway. When I was playing wing I was kind of playing like a center anyway, coming back and getting the puck and trying to come up the ice. I’m fine with it. Sometimes it’s exciting to play some new positions whether it’s wing or center. You look at it, this year the team was successful when I was at center.”

The Hawks did get off to a good start with Kane in the middle, surprising many observers with his play. He finished the season there as well after Jonathan Toews went down with a concussion.

“Our team’s best record, and it coincided with Patrick’s best performance, was when he was in the middle,” general manager Stan Bowman explained. “Patrick carried our team the last month or five weeks of the season. He kind of put us on his back and got us into the playoffs. He stepped up and was our No.1 center for all those weeks…I think the notion that he can’t play center or isn’t good at center has been dispelled. Not only did our team play well when he was in the middle he played well. He had his most productive time when he was there.”

Both Kane and Bowman are forgetting about the middle portion of the season. Why was Kane ever moved back to wing if his time at center was so productive? In November, when the Hawks hit the road both before and during the annual circus trip, Kane was moved out from the middle. He struggled with road matchups in which opposing coaches can match up a bigger, stronger player against Kane. And his face-off percentage wasn’t very good. But it takes nothing away from how he finished the season without Toews in the lineup. Except he went back to wing when the playoffs started, until Kruger faltered. So which is better for him?

Joel Quenneville’s highest praise came for Kruger.

“Kane started off the year and did a nice job for us,” Quenneville said. “He did again at the end of the year but I think Kruger came in and did a real strong job as far as filling that need or that void or that niche…Is he qualified to put up the numbers a second line center would produce at? Hopefully he continues to get better. You like his upside as a player, you like his competitiveness, you think he has great instincts, intelligence as well. Offensively gifted, I don’t know if its high end second line center, but as an organization, you have some young centers.”

So Bowman likes Kane there and Quenneville kind of likes Kruger. The question for the Hawks is , are either qualified for that position on a championship caliber team? It sounds like Bowman already believes he knows the answer.

“Having him in the middle, he’s [Kane] certainly better than any other center that’s available,” Bowman declared.

That statement might be one of those defining ones for Bowman. If he’s right, the Hawks can allocate their resources elsewhere, possibly to improve an under-sized defense. If he’s wrong, they might end up back at square one a year from now. Or else an improving Kruger might have to give it a try again.