Jaden Schwartz could be in line for a move to center ice in the near future.
After losing David Backes this offseason, the St. Louis Blues are running short on natural centers, and though we know that Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera will anchor two lines, it’s still a bit of a mystery as to who will be in the middle of the third line. The Blues’ hope has been that Vladimir Sobotka will return to fill that role after spending the past two seasons in the KHL, but with each passing day, it’s looking less likely that the 29-year-old will be able to get out of his contract with Avangard Omsk and return to St. Louis.
If Sobotka ultimately is forced to stay overseas, the Blues will have to look at other internal candidates to fill the third center role. One player who seems to be emerging during the early going is Jaden Schwartz, who has gotten some preseason work at center before, but has been pretty much exclusively limited to the wing during the course of his five-season NHL career:
Schwartz got more action at center during Saturday’s practice, the first this year that was open to the public. He’ll play right wing during Sunday’s preseason opener, working on a line with Robby Fabbri and Paul Stastny, but if the Sobotka situation remains unresolved by Sunday, it’s a good bet that we’ll start to see Schwartz playing center in preseason games.
While it certainly makes sense to experiment with Schwartz up the middle during preseason games, is it logical for the Blues to move one of their most impactful wings to center? It’s certainly possible for a center to be a big-time point producer–even if we haven’t seen that happen recently under Ken Hitchcock’s watch–but the Blues have plenty of other options at that position if Schwartz doesn’t end up being a good fit.
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Alexander Steen played center regularly during the second half of the 2015-16 season and has played the position periodically throughout his career, but he’s coming off shoulder surgery and may not be ready for the regular season. It’s easy to see, though, how it would be beneficial for Steen to play up the middle once he returns, as he’d avoid having to play on the boards so much.
Patrik Berglund would also be a candidate to move back to his natural position of center, but Hitchcock seems to like him more on the wing, where he take greater advantage of his size and superior defensive ability. It was telling last year when Hitchcock played Berglund mostly at wing last season, even as he was coming off shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the first half of the schedule.
If Schwartz is ever able to stay healthy for a full season, he’s got enough talent to become the Blues’ version of Joe Pavelski, an undersized center who’s the best player on the team that the Blues would be best-served to emulate, the San Jose Sharks. While Pavelski didn’t break into the NHL until he was 22 years old–compared to Schwartz, who arrived at 19–Schwartz has rather significantly exceeded the point-per-game totals over his age 22 and 23 seasons that Pavelski posted at the same ages. They’re both gritty and have enough skill at both ends of the ice to survive up the middle, though Schwartz will obviously have to develop significantly as a shooter if he eventually wants to become the 40-goal-per-year force that Pavelski is today.
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Then again, Robby Fabbri might be the Blues player who’s most likely to grow into that type of role. The 20-year-old Fabbri probably still needs to add more weight before he’ll be considered a realistic option to play at center ice, but he may have more natural offensive skill than Schwartz. Another thing to consider with Fabbri, though, is that he’s just as susceptible (if not more so) to an injury as Schwartz would be while playing center.
Considering Hitchcock’s reputation for line shuffling, it’s likely that we’ll see all the aforementioned names play center at some point this year as matchups dictate, and it’s also possible that we could see Kyle Brodziak move up to the third line on occasion or Dmitrij Jaskin shift to center, as he briefly did last season. With the way that Schwartz has distributed the puck over his first few seasons, though, it’s easy to see how he could make a real impact from the center position this year.