When the New Jersey Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk in Summer 2010, something had to give. He was a left wing. So were Devils mainstay Patrik Elias and burgeoning star Zach Parise. The Devils were suddenly more loaded on the left than MSNBC.
The first solution from Devils Coach John MacLean was to move Kovalchuk to right wing — a decision that flopped so mightily that he became ex-Devils Coach John MacLean before the New Year. When Parise was injured early in the season, the lineup was reset to normal. But coach Jacques Lemaire wanted to juice the offense with another lineup change: Moving Elias to center.
It wasn't the biggest risk offensively, as Elias is one of the team's best playmakers. Defensively, the role was a far greater challenge than on the wing — Elias was 45-percent on faceoffs last season.
With Travis Zajac's injury keeping him out until possibly 2012, any thoughts of a shift back to wing in 2011-12 were scuttled for Elias. He's been centering Parise in the preseason, and will likely do the same in the regular season. Part of it is necessity; part of it is Elias being a versatile-enough player to handle the switch.
Can the same be said for Patrick Kane? Or Ville Leino? Or Valtteri Filppula? Or other NHL standouts who are being tested in new positions this month, as well as others who be moved during the season?
Will they shine, or will these experiments flop?
Here's a look at some of the NHL standouts being tested in new roles this preseason:
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Patrick Kane is an all-star right wing that's sniped 103 career goals from that spot in four NHL seasons. But with Patrick Sharp injured, Coach Joel Quenneville broke up Kane and Jonathan Toews, moving Kane to second-line center. Kane's response to the move, via the Sun-Times:
"We'll try it for a couple [exhibition] games and see how it goes. ... I think it's something they wanted to try. It's preseason. So why not?"
The Blackhawks saw how it went in their Wednesday night preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings: Up and down the ice with blazing speed, as Kane centered an effective line with Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette. He had a goal and an assist and won 8 of 12 faceoffs.
Hey, Patrick Sharp can always play on the wing when he gets back …
Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres
Leino's move from wing to center came in July, when the Sabres made a $27 million investment in a player that had 11 points in 55 games two seasons ago. Unlike Kane, he has extensive experience at the position in his career. Yet there were still those who characterized Leino being signed as a second-line center as a gamble.
"I guess we'll see. It doesn't really matter what I [say] about it," Leino told us at Sabres camp two weeks ago. "I've been playing it all my life. It'll take a little bit of time to feel the best out there. You get a lot more pucks as a center, and you can make more plays."
He's centered a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford in the preseason. There's going to be some extra scrutiny because of his contract, but Leino at center could be a revelation.
If it doesn't work? Well, then that's a bit of a hole in the lineup for the Sabres.
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Winger Jamie Benn has been playing center here and there for the Stars for the last two seasons, having never played the position before that. Entering this season, Coach Glen Gulutzan has made it clear: Benn's a center, out of necessity and because the team feels he can thrive there.
Not only is he a center, he's Loui Eriksson's center now that Brad Richards is setting up goals in New York. He's skated with Eriksson and Steve Ott during the preseason. Here's the Defending Big D outlook on Benn as an impact player this season:
Moving forward into this season, Benn will be asked to replicate that special performance from March -- and try to extend that into an entire year and a career. Benn's physical ability to take over and dominate a game is something that not even Brad Richards possessed and it's a trait that separates the good from the elite players in the NHL. We've seen Benn be successful at multiple positions with multiple teammates with that rare ability to make the players around him better.
What the Stars will need on the ice from Benn is more consistency on a game to game basis. The way he faded when the team needed him the most is concerning and the hope is that the added pressure this season will bring won't be enough for a player who is still very, very young and has plenty of NHL games ahead of him.
If the Stars are going to have a prayer in the West, they need Benn to anchor the Eriksson line. And if Benn plans on making bank as an RFA next summer, it would behoove him to do so as well.
James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
Neal, the former Dallas Star, was a left wing during this NHL career. But Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma flipped him to the right side, where he's played well during camp. The long-term plan would be to have him as the right wing trigger man for Sidney Crosby, on a line with left wing Chris Kunitz. But in case you haven't heard, Crosby's battling some type of upper body injury.
"Who knows who I'm going to play with, but we do drills together in practice and stuff," Neal said. "I'm sure there will be a little feeling-out process, but hopefully we'll be ready to get going as soon as [Crosby] is ready to go.
"But at the same time, whoever I get a chance to play with, I'm more than happy to."
Regardless of whether Neal ends up playing alongside Crosby and Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan or, for that matter, Marc-Andre Fleury and a fire hydrant, the Penguins will be counting on him to generate a minimum of 20 goals, and they'd prefer something a lot closer to 30. There's nothing unreasonable about that, considering that Neal has scored 21 or more in each of his three NHL seasons.
We'd really like to see the Fleury/Fire Hydrant/Neal line. Although we hear the center is a real plug …
Valtteri Filppula, Detroit Red Wings
We've covered a lot of wingers moving to center; here's the opposite effect. Valtteri Filppula is seen as a 70-point player by Coach Mike Babcock but hasn't had a sniff of 50 points in the last four seasons. The move from the pivot to the wing is a way to get Filppula into the top six forwards for the Red Wings, and see if he can reach his offensive potential with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
"He's got a lot of energy," Zetterberg said. "We all know he's a good player. I think he's been showing that when he got an opportunity to play a little bit more. I think he will get that this year. It might be a little easier for him to be on the wing instead of the middle."
Filppula said he can be a little more offensive-minded while playing the wing, since the center has more defensive responsibilities in the Red Wings' system.
"On the wing, you're going more one-against-one against defensemen and if you're center, a lot of times you're going against everybody," Filppula said. "At wing, there should be a little more opportunity."
Question is whether Filppula can take capitalize on it, given his hesitancy to shoot the puck and lack of offensive aggression around the net.
• • •
These are the familiar faces in new roles during training camp; but could a few others see their positions change in the regular season?
Two to watch:
Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins
He's a natural center, and one assumes that's where he'll blossom into a star. At the start of the season, he's expected to play in right wing, likely on a line centered by Chris Kelly. But Coach Claude Julien was impressed with the strides in Seguin's game during the preseason during his time in the middle, and the possibility exists he could play his way into that role this season. (Or be thrust into it if there's an injury.)
Jeff Carter, Columbus Blue Jackets
Carter was acquired to finally be the top-line center for winger Rick Nash, and is centering a line with Nash and Vinny Prospal in the preseason. But what if they don't click? Could Carter slide to the wing in favor of another center between him and Nash?
Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch was asked that very question in a recent chat:
Portzline: Yes, there would be a huge resistance to moving Carter [from] center. This has been voiced from both coaches and management, that they've waited 10 years for a No. 1 center. It would be hard to put him on the wing. That said, if they get on into the season and they aren't scoring the desired number of goals, I [wouldn't] be surprised to see Brassard slide between Nash and Carter.
It would take a disaster of Steve Mason's-sophomore-year proportions to see Carter on the wing, one imagines.