The Los Angeles Kings didn’t break any new ground last season when they won the Stanley Cup with unrivaled depth down the middle — a quartet of quality centers who were reliable in their own end, effective on the attack, and strong at the faceoff dot.
But they sure hammered home the point that it all starts at the pivot.
“Last year, they were the deepest team in the middle, and they did pretty good in the playoffs,” deadpanned Hawks center Marcus Kruger.
So maybe it’s a bit extreme to say the Hawks are emulating the Kings. But it’s no exaggeration to say the Hawks are significantly better down the middle than they were a year ago, and comparable to the 2014 Kings. The wing-heavy Hawks opened last season’s playoffs with Jonathan Toews, Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw and Kruger at center. This year, they’ll likely open with Toews, Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards and Kruger, with Handzus in Europe, Shaw back at his natural spot as a winger, and Teuvo Teravainen waiting for an opportunity.
Offensively, defensively and at the faceoff dot, it’s a massive leap in the right direction.
“On paper, it looks really good,” Kruger said with a laugh.
Adding Richards over the summer was key. Adding Vermette on Saturday — without giving up a roster player, no less — was huge. Adding feisty center Andrew Desjardins from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for struggling Ben Smith two hours before Monday’s deadline gave Joel Quenneville even more options, while freeing up more than $1 million of cap space moving forward (Desjardins is on an expiring contract, and the Sharks retain half his salary).
It doesn’t hurt that Vermette, Kruger and Teravainen are versatile enough to play wing in a pinch, too.
“The center ice position is very important for us,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “I think you can never have too many guys. … It’s probably the strongest we’ve been at the center position in many years.”
Vermette didn’t want to make any bold predictions on his first day in a Hawks uniform, but is excited about the possibilities.
“It’s something your a lot of times, it’s a key position,” he said. “It seems to go that way with a successful team. I don’t want to make comparisons with other teams, but I think this represents a pretty good team.”
It was an unusually aggressive deadline for Bowman, but it came under unusual circumstances — Patrick Kane suffered a broken clavicle six days before the deadline, spurring the cautious GM to action.
He bolstered a struggling and injury-riddled defense with four-time all-star Kimmo Timonen, who plans to retire after one last run at his first championship. He landed the top rental forward on the market in Vermette, though he opened the door to the possibility of retaining him despite the looming salary-cap crunch. And he added Desjardins to the mix by moving the popular, but struggling, Smith, who had no points in his last 25 games, and who was twice a healthy scratch in the last three weeks.
All the Hawks gave up was Smith, prospect Klas Dahlbeck, and four draft picks over the next three years — some of which they expect to recoup when making cap moves after the season.
“We obviously like the group here,” Bowman said. “They’ve accomplished a lot as a group. You’re trying to give them a boost and add to the group. … We [got] three new faces to give our group some excitement, and push for the playoffs.”
And after a long week dealing with the Kane injury, suffering a disheartening shutout loss to Tampa Bay, and shooting down the swirling rumors about Patrick Sharp and the alleged discord within the dressing room, the Hawks got a big lift from the deadline — down the middle, and between the ears.
“We’re definitely excited to have them aboard,” Duncan Keith said. “I think we’re just excited as players to know that [the front office] is going everything they can to try and make us better.”