Brandon Pirri handles the puck in his second-to-last home game as a member of the Rockford IceHogs vs Chicago, February 21, 2014
photo: Todd Reicher, courtesy of Rockford IceHogs
By Chris Block
I recall day two of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal. Then Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon strained to holdback his excitement when talking to media types after drafting Toronto native, Brandon Pirri with the third-to-last pick in the second round of that draft.
“Terrific skills,” were the first Tallon gave when asked about Pirri. “He’s really a good hockey player. We’re very happy that we got him there. It’s the old adage, ‘(we) can’t believe he was still there.’”
Pirri had just turned 18 two months prior and was a relatively untested commodity upon entering the draft, having stuck to the Canadian junior B level after committing to join Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the fall of 2009.
In taking Pirri, the Hawks passed on a top European prospect who has followed a similar path as Pirri to date.
Tomas Tatar, a center of similar skill, though a slightly smaller build (he’s listed at 5-10), was still on the board at the time Pirri was taken. Detroit took Tatar in the spot right after Pirri.
Tatar, a Slovakian who represented his country at the Olympics this year, had one year of European pro hockey to his resume when his name was called by the Red Wings. He had also starred for the Slovakian team that lost to Russia in the bronze medal game in the 2009 World Juniors. Tatar was one of the leading scorers in that tournament behind John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Cody Hodgson. Tatar’s rights were swooped up in the first round of the KHL and CHL import draft that summer as well.
But Tallon, alongside the guidance of his Director of Amateur Scouting, Mark Kelley, who Tallon hired away from Ray Shero (who had just taken over for Craig Patrick as Pittsburgh GM) in the summer of 2006, was undeterred.
Pirri was the first of six centers the Blackhawks drafted on the second day of the 2009 draft. Tallon selected defenseman Dylan Olsen with the Hawks’ lone pick in the first round the night before. Of the six centers selected at that draft, only Pirri and Marcus Kruger have panned out into NHLers.
When quizzed about loading up with so many centers at the ’09 draft, Tallon stated, “It’s an important part of your team – up the middle.”
Tallon was fired by John McDonough eighteen days after the 2009 draft for reasons that have never been truly explained. (Officially, Tallon was “reassigned” to a phantom role of senior advisor and let go at the end of the 2009-10 season to assume the role as Panthers’ GM.) There was the infamous RFA qualifying offer deadline miss that Tallon took the bullet for, but there have been varying stories about whose fault that is. And GM’s don’t do paperwork. The Blackhawks have since created a position to handle that kind of clerical work.
Pirri spent one year at RPI until deciding college wasn’t for him. He joined the Rockford IceHogs in 2010. He made his NHL debut in the Blackhawks banner-raising home opener against Detroit that October. Pirri got a taste of the NHL in each of his first pro seasons but never stuck.
This season, he started out strong when called upon to center the Patrick Kane line. In November, Pirri had a stretch of 4 goals and 2 assists over six games on that line. But he tailed off shortly after, going pointless in his final 12 games played in a Blackhawks uniform in carefully pinned minutes.
After the pairing with Kane cooled off, Coach Joel Quenneville dropped Pirri to the team’s ‘third’ line in between Andrew Shaw and Kris Versteeg. The mix didn’t gel, which was surprising in a sense since it was on Pirri’s wing in Rockford during the 2011-12 season that Shaw went from marginal fourth line center to a player who ignited the IceHogs’ scoring line. On Pirri’s wing then, Shaw was promoted from minor league contract to a 2-way NHL one. Shaw was quickly given a shot on the Hawks thereafter and aside from a demotion late that season, and stint in the AHL during the lockout, Shaw has been an NHLer ever since.
Perhaps the final straw came after Pirri suffered a reoccurrence of the knee injury that limited him in September’s training camp. Pirri hobbled off the ice in Rockford after a hit and was figured to be out of the lineup for 7-10 days thereafter. Pirri wound up missing a month and some in the organization felt Pirri was milking the injury because he was unhappy with being sent back to Rockford.
Even so, he did get one more opportunity with the big club, a four game run prior to the Olympic break. That ended when the Hawks sent a 4th round pick to the Islanders for Peter Regin and minor-league rental Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Dale Tallon came calling Pirri’s name once again on March 2nd when he traded for his 2009, 59th overall pick.
He acquired the Rockford IceHogs’ all-time leading scorer quietly on a Sunday evening, three days before the NHL’s trade deadline.
That same evening, a headline in a sub section on ChicagoBlackhawks.com read “Blackhawks acquire draft picks from Florida.”
And just like that, Pirri, who was named the MVP at the AHL’s All-Star Classic game a few weeks prior, was gone.
Pirri registered his 200th point in an IceHogs sweater in his final game with the team, on Saturday March 1st at Oklahoma City. In 238 career AHL contests, Pirri collected 68 goals and 132 assists. The IceHogs failed to qualify for postseason during his first three full seasons with the club.
“I think it’s a great move for our long-term future,” Tallon said after acquiring Pirri for the Florida Panthers on March 2nd. “We’re adding some tremendous knowledge and skill. (Our) hockey IQ has increased dramatically with this acquisition.”
Tallon again appeared thrilled that his former draft pick and now NHL ready center was available (still there) and at the low cost of a 3rd round pick along with a 5th two years down the road.
“We’ll see how it fits,” Tallon said. “Obviously some of our centers might have to learn to play the wing, but it’s easier to do that than go the opposite way – to go from wing to center.”
What Tallon says there is true, if not only logical. But tell that to the Blackhawks.
Two of their recent 1st round draft picks who were drafted as centers have since been switched permanently to the wing. This, all while the Hawks try to stopgap square pegs into round holes at their second line center position. The organization seems to be ignoring the immediate lack of depth, or importance of the position entirely.
Tatar, now 23, shunned the KHL and bypassed the Canadian junior leagues in signing with the Red Wings shortly after the 2009 draft and reported to the Grand Rapids Griffins after the ensuing Red Wings training camp. Like Pirri with the Hawks, Tatar got brief looks with Detroit over the past four years until Tatar became a regular member of the Detroit roster this season.
In 56 games with Detroit this season, Tatar has notched 14 goals and 26 total points.
Pirri has played 5 games since he became a Florida Panther. He’s notched 2 goals and an assist in his last two games after being held off the scoresheet for his initial three games with his new team.
In the NHL this season, Pirri has appeared in 33 games. If you project Pirri’s 8 goals and 6 assists out over 82 games, he becomes a 20 goal scorer (20 goals, 15 assists).
Michal Handzus has 4 goals in 46 games this season and that projects out to 7 goals over 82 games.
Now Handzus is a smart two-way veteran center whose contributions can’t solely be quantified by goals scored, but he has spent a lot of his time this season skating with Patrick Kane, so you get the point.
When Pirri was sent back to Rockford in early December, the going narrative, or bland stock answer, as to why Pirri was demoted was that Pirri needed to work on his defensive game.
You could easily argue there’s never been a perfect player – not even Wayne Gretzky was perfect. And Pirri’s two-way game has its flaws. But Pirri was sent down because his offensive production first on Kane’s line, then with Versteeg and Shaw flat-lined. Once Quenneville chose to sit Pirri out of the lineup, Stan Bowman stepped in and sent Pirri (on the last year of his 4-year entry level slide contract) back to Rockford.
Pirri’s biggest flaw is that his skating is still a notch below where it needs to be to play the 200 foot shifts a center in the National Hockey League is asked to play. It certainly can improve still, as Pirri’s skating is significantly better now than it was in his rookie season or when he was at RPI when he was tagged for having cement feet. An off season dedicated to serious lower body strength training both on and off ice should get Pirri to where he needs to be.
While much has been made about the “success” of the Blackhawks drafts in recent years, the team has had little to show for it, which makes the unwillingness to give Pirri or Jeremy Morin more NHL time this season even further puzzling.
The fact is, since Patrick Kane in 2007, the Blackhawks have turned just 4 players from their draft classes into permanent members of their NHL roster – Ben Smith (2008), Marcus Kruger (2009), Brandon Saad (2011) and Andrew Shaw (2011). And while you can’t fairly call any of those guys flukes, Shaw surprised a lot of people and the Hawks passed over Saad twice after getting the guy they were salivating over (McNeill) with their first pick that year.
2009 picks Dylan Olsen and Pirri can probably now be considered NHLers but they were traded away for little (Kris Versteeg) or nothing.
From 2005 to 2008 the Blackhawks produced exactly four NHL players – Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Ben Smith.
The Hawks 2010 crop has two players set to turn pro after completion of their senior seasons next month. Kevin Hayes (Boston College) and defenseman Stephen Johns (Notre Dame) figure to be signed shortly after their hockey seasons conclude. One or both may wind up in Rockford for the stretch run and potentially postseason. Both Hayes and Johns come with as much uncertainty as they do hype. And it remains to be seen if each individual’s personalities will fit in with the Blackhawks.
The Pirri deal surprised few inside the organization. Pirri, or his agent, had requested a trade after the team acquired Regin. Pirri’s in a place now where he’ll be given more rope to earn a permanent spot in the NHL.
“Yeah, I had a feeling (a Pirri trade) might happen,” said Rockford IceHogs head coach Ted Dent. “It’s good for Brandon, I think. He might get a chance to play right away in the NHL. I think that’s what he wanted.
“We wish him luck. We’ll miss him, for sure. It’s been a good run – four years here in Rockford. Hopefully he does well.”
While it is debatable whether or not the Hawks pulled the trigger at the proper time or made a bad decision, Pirri’s in a better situation now for his career.
Jeremy Morin has played the best hockey of his career of late. He was named the AHL’s player of the month of February for scoring 9 goals and 9 assists over 11 games to help the Rockford IceHogs go 9-0-1-1 in the month. Morin recently had his 13-game consecutive point streak (11g 9a) snapped. Morin’s also riding a truly remarkable streak of 174 consecutive AHL games with recording at least one shot on goal. He’s averaging 3.6 shots per game over that stretch.
“He’s had an unbelievable stretch,” said Ted Dent after Morin was named the AHL player of the month. “He’s skating the best I’ve seen him skate in four years.”
Yet, Morin remains anchored to a Rockford mailing address. The re-signing of Bryan Bickell over the offseason reduced his chances of making it out of training camp. But it was the re-acquiring of Kris Versteeg in November that was a bigger indicator that the Hawks have no plans for him this year.
Stan Bowman spoke to IceHogs’ broadcaster Mike Peck in late December about his thought process in taking time with certain prospect’s development.
“I’ve talked to both [Pirri and Morin],” said Bowman. “They’ve done a very good job of sticking with it. Even though they want to be in the NHL, and feel they could be – And they probably could. That’s a fair statement.
“(At the same time) we have a lot of experienced players ahead of them.”
Morin isn’t a Blackhawks draft pick, but he was a Stan Bowman acquisition. The fact Pirri was dealt before the trade deadline and Morin was kept would indicate they are keeping him around either in the event Bickell (or Versteeg) is traded this coming summer or as a trading piece in a bigger deal that could come at this June’s draft.
The Hawks may regret being so quick to cut Pirri loose.
Pirri may not be the Hawks first choice to be the team’s second line center next season, but there’s no guarantee the diminutive Teuvo Teravainen will slide into that spot favorably either. Aside from that, the Blackhawks developed an NHL player in Pirri and now have nothing to show for it.
Bowman gave away depth at a position he sorely lacks it to begin with and he got no help in return for the playoff run.
The Hawks could have kept Pirri for emergency postseason depth. While one could argue a season-ending injury to Jonathan Toews would render the Hawks Cup hopes null and void regardless, the three pieces behind the Captain are easily interchangeable.
A surface narrative in the wake of Pirri’s departure has been repeated in some forums suggesting that Pirri doesn’t play a “200 foot game” and that’s why he couldn’t stick with the Hawks.
A truer assessment of Pirri’s game is that his skating ability (speed, balance and agility) remains just a notch below where the Blackhawks believe it needs to be to execute Joel Quenneville’s style. Well, neither does Michal Handzus, but the veteran has always been a cap cost-effective placeholder to bridge the gap to whatever the Hawks plans are for 2-4 center positions next season.
It’s not that Pirri doesn’t try to play a “200 foot game.” He does. He’s not a great two-way player at the AHL level, but he’s not completely irresponsible either.
In fact, during the 2012-13 season in Rockford, Pirri approached Ted Dent about wanting to become a regular part of the IceHogs penalty kill. Dent granted the request and Pirri’s defensive zone game benefitted from the experience. This season, Pirri was usually one of the two forwards on the third or fourth set of penalty killers, responsible for killing off the last 25 seconds or so and transitioning that into an offensive push once the team regained even strength.
The Hawks have done a good job of muddying their reasons of why Pirri never stuck in the NHL lineup. But the mere fact that they slammed the door on Pirri in favor of continuing to play Shaw, Handzus and recently Peter Regin ahead of the AHL’s 2012-13 leading scorer obviously diminished Pirri’s trade value.
When the Hawks signed 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc last spring that seemed to signal Pirri’s time in the Hawks organization was dwindling.
LeBlanc is on a one-way contract next season that will pay the then 25-year old pivot $600,000 no matter what league he skates in. LeBlanc has been stuck on Rockford’s 4th line almost exclusively since November. He’s played in every IceHogs game this season, but he’s played in more games than he has shots on goal. He’s rarely been a part of the ‘Hogs power play, which would be the area he’d best contribute given his skating prevents him from getting to pucks or separating himself from checkers at even strength.
So, given his contract, it’s logical to assume LeBlanc was at least initially pegged for a possible spot down the middle in 2014-15, his performance this season has destroyed that idea.
Realizing this, it makes the unwillingness to let Pirri play at least half a season at the NHL level downright dumbfounding. If the LeBlanc contract was a precursor, then why wait so long to deal Pirri? And now that you’ve waited to the point where Pirri’s value became essentially a fortune cookie draft pick, why not roll the dice with the kid and keep him in your back pocket for depth?
Which now begs a more important question – What is the Blackhawks plan at center?
Teravainen figures to be the immediate answer to that question. If he ever sees Rockford that will be an upset. But, where is the depth after that, especially if he doesn’t work out at center immediately?
Kevin Hayes doesn’t play center. He was drafted as one, but Hayes has skated at left wing this season. He doesn’t take faceoffs either. And in judging by comments made by Bowman recently, the Hawks seem to be fine with this.
Mark McNeill hasn’t played center since the Hawks drafted him in 2011. In fact, the Hawks went to his junior team in Prince Albert that year and asked they play McNeill exclusively at right wing. Prince Albert obliged. So, unless there are some unforeseen and drastic changes to the team’s top six over the next two years, McNeill’s potential tops out as a third line right wing.
With getting an early 3rd round pick back from Florida, the Hawks get essentially an equivalent pick as the one they used in 2009 to obtain Pirri. But as history proves, 3rd round picks tend to be swing and miss chances.
Joakim Nordstrom is a bottom six guy and a bubble guy at that for next season. Phillip Danault has been a victim of depth this season and really needs to get back into a defined role in the top nine IceHogs forwards next year to get his development back on track. Alex Broadhurst is someone to keep in mind but will be in Rockford another year or two still.
“We’ve seen other places rush guys [when] they’re not quite ready,” Stan Bowman explained.
“We’ve taken the opposite approach. We probably try to keep them down here longer than they want to be. But, I think ultimately it serves them well.”
In this case, it’s served Pirri well. Not the Blackhawks.
“I know some of them want to get to the NHL faster,” Bowman said in December.
“They get impatient. And we just have to explain to them that this is the way the system works. They’re [in Rockford] to learn and get good experience.”
Of course unless their name is Teuvo.