The Blackhawks have gone through second-line centers in recent years like Chicago has gone through changes in weather this summer. There were plenty of times in the last three years where the second-line center one day wasn’t the same second-line center the next day.
The list of centers that played at least a few shifts on the second line in recent years is lengthy. There was Dave Bolland, Michal Handzus, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Pirri, Peter Regin, Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw, Ben Smith and Antoine Vermette. The Blackhawks even experimented with Brandon Saad there in training camp.
Richards provided some stability there this season, but even he had to wait his turn and was later briefly replaced by Vermette. Now in Anisimov, at least on paper, they have someone who can fill that spot for years to come after he signed a five-year, $22.75 million contract extension that will run through the 2020-21 season.
“I want to be part of the team,” Anisimov said on a conference call Wednesday. “Every year they’ve battled for the Stanley cup. To sign for five years in Chicago is big for me, and I’m really excited to sign with the Blackhawks.”
In Anisimov, the Blackhawks get a big center at 6-foot-4, 198 pounds. He’s never had amazing offensive numbers (single-season high of 44 points) and doesn’t create a whole lot for his wingers (he’s reached 20 assists in 5-on-5 play once in his career), but he can score goals, is defensively reliable, is solid at faceoffs and has often had positive possession numbers. He had 17 5-on-5 goals two seasons ago and has had a Corsi percentage of 50 percent or better in four seasons. He’s also been among the Blue Jackets' top penalty-killing and power-play forwards.
The Blackhawks learned the hard way that they weren’t deep enough at center when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals in 2014. The Blackhawks came back this past season with Jonathan Toews, Richards, Vermette and Marcus Kruger down the middle, and that led to a Stanley Cup.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman spoke Tuesday about how important it was to him to have in place two top-6 centers in Toews and Anisimov.
“We definitely wanted to get a legitimate center with some size, and I look at our combination now of Toews and Anisimov, and I feel very comfortable knowing we’ve got a strong 1-2 punch,” Bowman said.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will undoubtedly put Toews on the top line and Anisimov on the second line, but he’ll have plenty of options to surround them. Patrick Kane has often been apart from Toews in recent years, but Quenneville could reunite them if he feels Toews’ creative game will benefit Kane more. Marian Hossa will likely be the other right wing. Patrick Sharp and Artemi Panarin are the best left-wing options, and both have scoring ability.
Anisimov wasn’t sure exactly where he fit in, but he was excited to find out during training camp in September.
“Obviously Chicago is a very talented team and they have star players,” Anisimov said. “Hard to talk about in the summer. We just need to go on the ice and start finding some solutions.”
The Blackhawks are hopeful they found a solution for a second-line center for many years to come.