Tommy Wingels enjoys being in the center of the action

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Tommy Wingels (left) celebrates with Alex DeBrincat after Wingels scored a goal against the Predators on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

The warmup session isn’t terribly complicated in hockey. Everybody takes a few shots from the blue line to break in the goaltender, then a few shots from the corner.

Then everybody does two two-on-ones (for forwards, it’s one from each side), then three three-on-twos to give the lines and pairings a chance to work together.

Then it’s a bit of a free-for-all, with guys lingering and firing away until they’ve had enough. No big deal.


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But last fall, that was enough to send a San Jose Sharks forward into a near panic. Coach Peter DeBoer had moved this natural winger to center, a position he’d never played before. After warmup, the player went into the dressing room and begged out of the position, saying he just couldn’t do it.

“The default option was me,” Tommy Wingels recalled. “They said, ‘Why don’t you try it out?’ ”

And that’s how Tommy Wingels, winger, became Tommy Wingels, center. He hadn’t played the pivot since his days at Miami University in the late 2000s, but he acquitted himself well and played center off and on throughout the season. When he was traded to Ottawa, the Senators used him in the middle, too. And now that he’s in Chicago, the Blackhawks have been using him exclusively at center — something nobody saw coming this season. Not even Wingels.

It’s one thing to move a young player around to see what he can do. It’s quite another to move a guy in his late 20s, who has been playing wing in the NHL for years.

“I always find that centermen can always move to the wing and make that adjustment relatively smoothly,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But going [from wing] to center, there’s a lot more. You’re busier in all zones, especially in your own end. There’s more awareness positionally. [Wingels] has been surprisingly fitting a good need for us.”

Wingels’ usual line, with Lance Bouma and John Hayden, has been arguably the Hawks’ most consistently effective. The three players are all bangers, working hard in the corners and limiting opposing chances. And lately, they’ve been chipping in offensively more. Wingels and Bouma each scored in Nashville last week, and Hayden had two goals and an assist in a seven-game span, earning an in-game promotion to the top line Sunday.

It’s nice to be a good shutdown line, or, as Quenneville calls them, “the energy line.” But everybody wants to score, too.

“We’re a confident group,” Wingels said. “We know as a group we can be an effective line out there. When the goals come, it raises that confidence level. Why can’t we produce points? That being said, we can’t let the points take away from what makes us a good line, and that’s winning battles, being aggressive, finishing checks.”

Wingels’ passion is always evident in his voice, and the Wilmette native has quickly become a vocal presence. But Hayden pointed to his on-ice play — the way he throws his weight around and plays with occasional reckless abandon — as inspirational. In Nashville, Wingels hurled himself in front of a massive slap shot by P.K. Subban on the penalty kill, absorbing one of the hardest shots in the league.

“I’ve been impressed with his leadership from the start, from training camp,” Hayden said. “He’s willing to play different roles, and you saw it with that blocked shot that he’ll put everything on the line for the team.”

And, it turns out, he’ll play anywhere on the line, too.

“Every game, I’m getting more and more comfortable [at center],” he said. “It’s a competitive position all over the ice, which I really enjoy. You’re always involved in the battles, from the faceoff to D-zone coverage. It’s a workmanlike game, and it’s all about your battle level. I think it brings out the best in me.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.


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