The Pirri Predicament: Does he stay or go?
Ever since the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the role of second line center has been a well-documented void that needs to be filled. Patrick Sharp, who filled the role during the run, was moved to wing in 2011, and since then the Hawks have had a parade of centers attempting to fill the role, including Marcus Kruger, Dave Bolland, and Patrick Kane. While Michael Handzus seems to be the semi-permanent solution for now, the question remains if he will be able to keep up his strong play as age and injuries factor into his career.
The heir apparent for the second line position has appeared been Brandon Pirri for a few years now. A high-scoring AHL center, Pirri has been a star of the Rockford Icehogs, and Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville have often talked about how he’s an option once he grows, matures, and becomes NHL ready-whenever that may be.
This year, it looked like Pirri was finally ready to stick. He’s gone up and down between the two teams before, playing only 7 games for the Blackhawks over his last 3 seasons, but this year he's played 24 out of 29 total games and currently has 11 points (5G, 6A). While it’s not exactly second line center numbers, if this pace were to continue for an entire 82 game campaign, he could rack up 37 points- not bad for an NHL rookie.
However, Pirri was sent back down to Rockford again yesterday, continuing the trend of call-ups and reassignments. The continuing cycle begs the question: what’s the problem with Pirri?
Quenneville doesn’t quite seem to think that he’s defensively strong enough to stick in such a prominent role, saying on Monday that “We know what he’s capable of. We want him to progress defensively; offensively we know he’s going to be fine.” Pirri’s already a proven AHL scorer, racking up a league-leading 75 points in 76 games for the Icehogs last year. He has continued to produce at an NHL level, but he is no longer the star of the league, and the problem now is defense and all-around play, which is limiting his ice time to an average of 12:14 per game. For a team that capitalizes on defensive lapses and has the puck often, being defensively responsible is imperative for Pirri's game.
The question now becomes what to do with him. How long will he need to develop before he can make the jump for good to the NHL- or will he ever have a home with the Hawks? This is Pirri’s fourth season with Chicago, and he will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. If an agreement can be reached, a logical solution would be to sign the forward to a ‘bridge contract’- likely a 2 or 3 year contract for a lower sum to give Pirri an opportunity to prove his worth to the club.
But if the Hawks aren’t willing to give him that chance, it’s likely he’s traded away, as he can’t sign with another team as an RFA. Pirri could always go to arbitration as well, but that’s a route that would hopefully be avoided.
For now, he has to continue doing what he has been trying to do for his entire career in Chicago- keep working and try to impress when the call-up does come.
Personally, I can't see Pirri staying with the Hawks for much longer. Fans have hardly gotten to see him in action, with this year being the first that he's really been in any span of consecutive games. While he's not necessarily playing poorly, I'm not impressed with his game now that I have seen him. Pirri's welcome in Chicago seems to have grown stale-it's obvious he's not a solution to the 2C problem right now. Pirri has a limited amount of time to prove his worth and find another gear, and quite frankly, I don't think he can.
There's also the issue of the other centers in the Hawks system, most notably the skilled Teuvo Teravainen, the Finnish prodigy who has a chance to make the Hawks roster as early as next year- and who made a strong statement at center this past training camp. If Teravainen needs more time to develop, the Hawks could call up Mark McNeil, a first round draft pick from 2011.
Pirri's welcome has been worn out in Chicago, and if he doesn't impress this year, he could very well be on his way out the door.
Thanks for reading!