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Blackhawks improving second-line center nice, but not at any cost

nhl draft

Friday-Saturday in Philadelphia
• First round, 6 p.m. Friday, NBCSN

Early draft order

1. Panthers, 2. Sabres, 3. Oilers,
4. Flames, 5. Islanders.

• Blackhawks’ first pick: No. 27

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Updated: June 26, 2014 11:16PM

Imagine if Bryan Bickell had fired one of his hard and heavy shots instead of trying (and failing) to pass to Marian Hossa on that two-on-one early in the third period of Game 7 against the Los Angeles Kings. Imagine if Ben Smith had scored on a two-on-one after that. Imagine if the puck had bounced an inch higher and Marian Gaborik hadn’t been able to chip in a backhanded rebound to tie the game late in the third. Imagine if Jonathan Quick hadn’t swallowed up golden chances from Andrew Shaw, Hossa and Patrick Kane to send the game to overtime.

It’s all immaterial now, heart-stopping moments already lost in the ether of memory, preserved only on DVRs owned by Kings fans skipping ahead to the good part at the end. But it’s worth remembering, painful thought it might be. The Blackhawks were one bounce, one measly little fortunate break from winning the series, and, let’s be real here, their second straight Stanley Cup and their third in five years. From becoming the new benchmark for all hockey teams in the modern era.

This is not a team in need of a massive overhaul.

But like every team, the Hawks are flawed. So as the Hawks prepare for the NHL Entry Draft on Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia — maybe the busiest single day of offseason activity in any sport — it’s natural to press your nose up against the glass at the Second-Line Center Store and wonder what Ryan Kesler would look like playing alongside Patrick Kane. Or to gawk at Jason Spezza. Or to squint at the price tag for Paul Stastny.

And just like Hawks fans, general manager Stan Bowman has been doing that. The Hawks have contacted Vancouver about Kesler, and Ottawa about Spezza, and have reached out to the representatives of Stastny, an unrestricted free agent. Talk around the league is that the Hawks, usually deliberate and conservative with their personnel decisions, could make a major splash this weekend.

That’s fine. But it shouldn’t come at too high a cost. And Patrick Sharp is too high a cost. Sharp’s agent, Rick Curran, insisted on Wednesday that Bowman had assured him Sharp was not on the block. Bowman declined to back him up on that statement on Thursday.

“I’ve never commented on rumors and I’m not going to start today,” Bowman said. “I don’t think it helps anybody.”

Rarely does trading a four-time 30-goal scorer in the best shape of his life and coming off the best season of his career, either. There’s no doubt that Kane has suffered statistically because of the lack of a true second-line center. But the Hawks have not suffered much as a team, have they? Twice, they won a Cup with that same void in the lineup — a winger (Sharp) filling it in 2010, a supposedly washed-up afterthought (Michal Handzus) filling it in 2013.

A Kesler or a Stastny would make that line far more dangerous, but losing Sharp would nullify the gain. Maybe Bickell can be a top-line left wing in the regular season, maybe he can’t. Sharp can. And is. Dealing a two-time Cup winner with years of built-up chemistry for a lesser scorer who hasn’t won anything is a risk teams who can’t get over the hump make. Not teams that have already done it twice.

Neither Kesler (who has a lot of hard miles on him) nor Spezza is young enough to make it worthwhile. Stastny isn’t cheap enough to fit under the cap. And the Hawks aren’t desperate enough (even in a rapidly deepening Western Conference) to take such a risk. Let the fact that’s it’s draft weekend be a reminder that the Hawks have had homegrown talent break through nearly every year — guys like Shaw and Brandon Saad — and that 2012 first-round pick Teuvo Teravainen, the second-line center in waiting, could be next.

If Vancouver’s asking price comes down and you can deal away lesser players and lesser prospects for Kesler? Go for it. If you can move enough spare parts to free up enough salary to squeeze in Stastny and the pending $10-million-plus contract extensions for Kane and Jonathan Toews? Do it in a heartbeat. But don’t do it out of desperation, because these aren’t desperate times. Change can be good. But the Hawks have the luxury of not needing to change much. Fill holes. Add depth. Improve, don’t overhaul.

Yes, eventually a core star will have to be moved. The salary-cap era and the ravages of age and time will force Bowman’s hand. But not yet. The championship window is still open, and a championship roster is still there. Even if a true second-line center still isn’t.

NOTES: Bowman said it’s “certainly possible” that the Hawks could move up or down from their first-round draft slot of 27th. … Bowman wouldn’t confirm or deny rumors that goaltending coach Steve Weeks has been fired after just one season with the Hawks. “We’re assessing a few things with our staff,” he said. “I don’t want to get into specifics right now.” … Gary Bettman told reporters on Thursday that the salary-cap figure for next season should be set in time for the draft. The number is expected to be around $70 million. It was $64.3 million this past season.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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