Season Preview: Dave Bolland – Year of ‘The Rat’

photo credit: National Post/Getty

By Brad Gardner

Dave Bolland missed significant time due to injury for the second consecutive regular season, but again proved himself with a strong finish in the playoffs. The center helped key the Blackhawks’ turnaround in their first round series against Vancouver.  Bolland earned a goal and three assists in Chicago’s game four win. He finished the postseason tied for the team lead with six points and led the team with a plus-six rating despite playing in only the final four games of the series.

A high elbow from Pavel Kubina knocked Bolland out of the lineup for the final 14 games of the regular season and start of the playoffs, resulting in his second consecutive injury-shortened season. Despite the missed time, the center’s production rebounded from the previous season in which his effectiveness was limited by a back injury. Surgery on the back eventually cost Bolland half of the 2009-10 regular season and he registered a career-low .41 points per game when he was able to play.

Last season, he upped his output to .61 points per game, a notch better than the .59 mark that helped him earn a 5-year, $16.875 million dollar extension in the summer of 2009. It may not be the top-six production that some expected from a former 100-point scorer at the junior level, but Bolland’s reputation has largely been built as a shutdown center capable of throwing the opposition off its game.

Bolland’s shutdown ability has especially been noticeable in the playoffs, where he has notoriously been a thorn in the side of the opposition. His play against the Sedin twins in the last two years against the Canucks has especially garnered praise. When the two squads met in a second round series in 2010, the Sedins managed just 10 points in six games against Bolland and the Blackhawks after combining for 18 points in their seven game first round series against the Los Angeles Kings. In the 2011 playoffs, the twins combined for nine points in the first three games of the series but just three points in the final four games after Bolland’s return.

The fact that Bolland is used in a largely defensive role is especially clear in his zone starts – only 34.2 percent of his zone starts came in the offensive end, which was the second lowest percentage on the team to fourth line center Ryan Johnson. His quality of competition was also significantly higher than any other regular forward, which means Bolland played the toughest minutes of any Chicago forward last year.

As long as those things do not show up on the score sheet, however, Bolland will still be underappreciated by a large segment of fans in Chicago and around the league. Defensive acumen and hockey sense do not win many fans for a high second round pick with the kind of junior numbers Bolland put up.

One reason he has struggled to make a consistent impact on the score sheet over the last few years in Chicago is the variety of linemates with which he has played. In his first full season with the Blackhawks, Bolland developed chemistry with Andrew Ladd and Martin Havlat and throughout the season that unit was often the team’s best line. That sort of stability has not occurred the past two seasons, partly due to injuries keeping Bolland out of the line-up and also because of the constant line-juggling of head coach Joel Quenneville.

The issue of chemistry for Bolland seemed to turn a corner late last season, as his line with Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell emerged as a quality checking line and was also able to create a ton of chances in the offensive end. While that combination may be penciled into the ‘Hawks opening night line-up, Quenneville will certainly have the eraser handy if the team fails to get off to a good start.

Still only 25 years old, Bolland has shown that he can produce at a decent rate in the NHL. He may not have shown the hands to stick on a line with the likes of Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa to this point in his career, but he was still among the Blackhawks’ best playmakers a season ago. He trailed only Jonathan Toews (1.04) in primary assist average last year, averaging .83 primary assists for every 60 minutes of ice time.

With his excellent hockey sense and the amount of talent on the Blackhawks’ roster, an improvement on the score sheet is certainly a possibility for Bolland. Depending on how he is deployed by Quenneville, a major step forward in production may even be expected.

The depth chart is far from established heading into training camp, however, and the center position is one which could change significantly over the course of the season. Behind Jonathan Toews, the second and third line center spots will have a few players in the running. Patrick Sharp spent most of the 2010-11 season at the pivot spot, but would ideally move back to left wing if another viable candidate emerges. Marcus Kruger will be in the mix in training camp for a chance as a top-nine center and players like Frolik or Ben Smith might also force their way into the second or third line center conversation.

No matter what kind of role Bolland earns in camp, one area in need of improvement is at the faceoff dot. Whether he is depended on to win faceoffs against the opponent’s top line or if he is taking a draw on the power play, the Blackhawks will be a team that relies heavily on puck possession and controlling the tempo of the game. Accomplishing those goals, particularly for a player like Bolland who will get plenty of time with both special teams units, starts at the faceoff dot.

Toews has led the way for the Blackhawks in the faceoff department since joining the team, but it has largely been the veteran centermen like Samuel Pahlsson, John Madden, and Ryan Johnson who have picked up the slack in recent years. Bolland’s career-high faceoff percentage of 49.4 came in his 31-game season in 2009-10. Last season, he won only 45.1 percent of his draws overall and while short-handed, just 39.4 percent.

Despite his struggles at the dot, Bolland has already established himself as one of the most difficult centers to play against in the league. If he can stay healthy and make a more consistent impact on the score sheet throughout the season, he could help push the Blackhawks’ forward corps to even bigger heights.

Brad Gardner

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