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Kirby Dach’s return will improve — but further complicate — Blackhawks’ center situation

With Dach increasingly likely to return to the Hawks’ lineup this season, who will be the odd man out when he returns? Can Philipp Kurashev or Pius Suter remain top-six centers? And what does the future hold for pending free agents Carl Soderberg and Lucas Wallmark?

Kirby Dach could return to the Blackhawks lineup in about a month, pushing the team’s other centers down the depth chart.
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Kirby Dach remains likely at least a month away from returning to the Blackhawks’ lineup.

But when it comes to the Hawks’ playoff hopes, every game the recovering 20-year-old center manages to play in at the end of this season will be immensely helpful.

The Hawks’ need for another top-six center — or two, although Jonathan Toews’ return timeline is infinitely cloudier than Dach’s — has been especially noticeable lately with rookies Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev experiencing simultaneous dips.

The Hawks have mainly used Suter as their first-line center, although Kurashev has also seen time there. But Suter and Kurashev have only four and three points, respectively, in the Hawks’ last 14 games, so David Kampf skated between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat on Monday.

“It’s not a surprise that it’s a challenge sometimes when it’s your first year in the league trying to take that much responsibility,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “There’s not many rookies playing in the first-line center spot across the league. So we’re trying to help them carry that load, respond to the challenge and keep at a high level.”

Both Suter, who excels at puck retrieval, and Kurashev, whose stickhandling leads to flashes of brilliance, have shown promise despite their recent downturns. But they’re clearly not first-line centers right now.

Dach, depending on how rusty he’ll be coming off his wrist injury and how smoothly he continues the exponential growth curve he demonstrated in 2019-20, might be. He’ll certainly be the Hawks’ best option.

When he returns, though, the lower rungs of the center depth chart will become even more complicated.

Dylan Strome’s concussion recovery timeline is also cloudy, but he has been far more effective as a center than as a wing during his young career. The real question is whether he’s capable of being a second-line center, and results on that front earlier this season were bearish.

Kampf has been overslotted lately but is reliable and consistent defensively. Ryan Carpenter can play center, although he’s mainly been used on the wing. Carl Soderberg and Lucas Wallmark have added depth this year.

Add Suter and Kurashev into that mix, and suddenly the Hawks arguably have too many centers — pushing Strome, Soderberg and Wallmark could potentially onto the trading block.

There are logical reasons to trade each, but also logical reasons to keep each. There’s also the fact that the Hawks would have to decide before the April 12 trade deadline — likely before Dach actually returns.

Wallmark, who hasn’t found a steady role in Chicago, and his expiring contract could fetch a late-round pick. The Hawks wouldn’t feel much heartburn parting ways, although Colliton did say Monday he has liked Wallmark during his most recent stint in the lineup.

Soderberg will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and does have some trade value, with 12 points in 25 games. He’s an interesting case, as his even-strength possession stats have been awful lately (22.4% scoring chance ratio over his last six appearances) but were good before that: 54.4% over the six previous appearances.

He’s also been a great net-front presence, particularly on the power play.

“[Carl has] created some goals that he hasn’t gotten any points on,” Colliton said recently. “But because he’s there...a half-chance becomes a great opportunity... He’s been a nice addition.”

And Strome, despite slowly fading from relevance this year, just signed a two-year contract with a $3 million cap hit in January and could arguably still be considered part of the team’s young core. The Hawks would demand a high price for him on the market.

The Hawks will nonetheless need to soon determine some solutions for their center conundrum, both to fill the holes in the top two lines — presumably partly with Dach — and to sort out the logjam below that.