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Blackhawks loading up on centers — through draft

Center KevHayes (middle) was first-round draft pick Hawks. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Center Kevin Hayes (middle) was a first-round draft pick of the Hawks. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 12, 2012 6:41AM

Blackhawks center prospect Kevin Hayes sounded like a college kid — one with a strong Boston accent — when asked what it was like to watch his older brother Jimmy realize his dream of playing in the NHL.

“It was just crazy,” Hayes said of watching his brother debut with the Hawks last season. “Hopefully, he stays up for a long time, and hopefully pretty soon I’ll be up there with him.”

But Hayes has major competition.

The Hawks’ lack of depth at center often is cited as a reason for their struggles. But they’ve invested a lot in building organizational depth at the position, using four first-round picks in three years to draft players who can play center.

Hayes was drafted with the 24th overall pick in 2010. Then came Mark McNeill (18th overall) and Phillip Danault (26th) in 2011. This year, the Hawks selected Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen, who said he likes playing center, with the 18th pick.

In other words, center has been a priority for the Hawks, although they have only two natural and proven centers on the roster in Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland.

“They have drafted a lot of centers, and it creates for more competition,” McNeill said this week during the team’s prospect camp at Johnny’s Ice House West. “But it’s healthy competition.”

With Marcus Kruger already on the team and Brandon Pirri coming off a solid season with the Rockford IceHogs, all of them have much to prove before getting their chance with the Hawks.

But while Teravainen, a 17-year-old with a slim build, might be a few years away, McNeill, Danault and Hayes are inching closer. All three are already bigger than Kruger and Pirri.

“It’s a big step up to the NHL,” Danault said. “It comes with the time.”

McNeill and Danault signed their three-year, entry-level deals in January and had seven-game stints with Rockford last season with varying results.

McNeill, 19, was drafted with an NHL-ready frame, but he said he feels “bigger and stronger” than at his first prospect camp. During last training camp, winger Patrick Kane described McNeill (6-1, 211 pounds) as the type of hard-nosed center he likes to play with.

“I think I’ve grown and developed quite a bit,” said McNeill, who had 31 goals and 71 points last season for Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League. “They want to see maturity in me and development and growth all throughout my game, not just certain areas.”

Unlike McNeill, Danault tallied two points with Rockford last season. He also has added 15 pounds and weighs more than 200.

Danault, who is coming off a 71-point season for Victoriaville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, said he worked on his shot and battling in the corners.

“Everybody gets drafted because they have a different role,” said Danault, 19. “My role is my work ethic, my vision of the game and speed. Some guys have got skill, but I’m more like a third-liner or even a second.”

Hayes, 20, said he plans to return to Boston College for his junior year after playing on the Eagles’ 2012 national champions. At 6-3 and well over 200 pounds, Hayes said he has been working on becoming “more of a power forward” to set him apart.

“The main thing I need to work on is D-zone coverage,” Hayes said. “You can’t have any lapses back there. It all goes back to being consistent. I want to show the coaches I’m a very consistent player.”

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