Should Tom Wandell Center The Third Line?

In a season that generated more pessimism than optimism, the emergence of Tom Wandell was a bright spot for the Dallas Stars' 2009-2010 campaign. So that made it a tough pill to swallow when he tore his ACL by colliding with the Vancouver bench door in February in an incredibly unlucky accident that ended his season. A few days ago, Mike Heika featured Tom Wandell in the latest part of his player profile series, and brought along some good news that Tom Wandell's rehab "is going great": 

He had a sort of cockiness and defiance when he talked about recovering from the knee injury. He was of the mind that he would be able to handle it, and that it wouldn't be a setback at all. He's already scrimmaging in Sweden, according to the Stars, and the Stars say they are hopeful he is ready to go the minute he gets here.

That is fantastic news, though perhaps a bit optimistic. We all remember how long it took Brenden Morrow to get back up to speed, and he had 11 months to recover. Wandell has had 6. But the fact that he's already scrimmaging in Sweden is very encouraging. Remember, we don't know the severities of both tears, so it's difficult for us to compare Morrow's injury to Wandell's accurately. And I'm no surgeon, but I'm guessing that scrimmaging on skates just six months after major knee surgery is a very good thing. 

So, let's assume that when the season begins, Wandell is at least 95% healthy. Where exactly does he fit in on the Stars' lineup? 

With Mike Modano out of the picture, the third-line center spot is open. It's no secret that the Stars want to move Jamie Benn to center permanently, and Benn played the last part of the season centering a line between Lehtinen and Modano. So what the Stars might want to do is keep Benn centering the third line, but that would mean moving Wandell to the wing. 

Personally, I don't think that's how the Stars should handle it. 

For the purposes of this post, I'm working under the assumption that Mike Ribeiro will be traded in the future, before the 2012 season. So with that in mind, any positional move the Stars make with Wandell or Benn is temporary. At some point, both will play center. The question is who will play center this season?

I'm guessing here, but if Benn played center, the lines would look something like this: 

Forwards
James Neal Brad Richards Loui Eriksson
Brendon Morrow Mike Ribeiro Steve Ott
Tom Wandell Jamie Benn Adam Burish
Brian Sutherby Toby Petersen Krys Barch
Fabian Brunnstrom Brandon Segal

Benn takes center, then Otter steps up a line to play with Morrow and Ribs. I think that second line would be fine together, we've seen Otter and Ribs have success when Morrow was injured, and we all know about the great chemistry between Morrow and Ribeiro. But that third line...I don't know if I like it. To me, that line wastes the talents of Adam Burish and Tom Wandell, and doesn't really give Benn room to grow. It's a line torn between the offensive talents of Benn, the two-way game of Wandell, and the agitator role of Burish. Not much cohesiveness. 

Now, if Wandell centers the third line, things (might) look like this: 

Forwards
James Neal Brad Richards Loui Eriksson
Brendon Morrow Mike Ribeiro Jamie Benn
Steve Ott Tom Wandell Adam Burish
Brian Sutherby Toby Petersen Krys Barch
Fabian Brunnstrom Brandon Segal

In my opinion, if you want to get the most out of the players on the roster, you line them up like this. That Morrow-Ribeiro-Benn line was used early on last season, with great results. The players are familiar with each other, and on paper that looks like a potent scoring 2nd-line. 

Now take a look at the third line. This, to me, is how you use Tom Wandell. With the possible departure of Jere Lehtinen, Wandell is just about as close to that kind of two-way player as you can get. I went looking for numbers to back this up, but Heika found them for me in his profile of Wandell: 

What's interesting is if you delve into his stats, he has some pretty big numbers. Wandell had 31 takeaways in 50 games. Taken out over 82 games, that would be 50 takeaways, and that would rank fourth on the team. His 40 blocked shots would stretch out to 65 over 82 games, and that would be first among Stars forwards. He had 44 hits and showed he's not afraid of physical play.

And it's not like the Stars didn't realize this about Wandell. He ended up with 81:18 total shorthanded minutes, averaging 1:37 per game. Stretch that out over 82 games and he's right around 133 minutes, which would be 6th best on the team. So the Stars seem to trust him handling the defensive side of things. 

Now, put him on a line in between Steve Ott and Adam Burish, and you've got a great checking third-line. Burish and Ott bring the physicality along the boards, and Wandell adds the speed and defensive responsibility. And as Heika pointed out, Wandell knows how to score a bit. And being on a line with the physical Burish would open up room for Ott to score more. 

There a two concerns that would come along with that combination. First off, a line with Burish and Ott on the wings sounds like a heck of a lot of penalty minutes. There's not much you can do about that but trust the two to play smarter. And like I said, I think playing with Burish will allow Otter to focus more on scoring than agitating. But it could still be an issue. The second concern is that of faceoffs. Wandell sported a mediocre 44% faceoff percentage last season, and that will certainly have to be improved if he is to take on the role of 3rd line center. But he needs more experience to improve, and the Stars will have to be patient with him. 

Now where does this leave Benn? Like I said, I expect Mike Ribeiro to be moved eventually. So Benn will get his chance at center eventually. But right now, it feels like the best thing the Stars can do to have success is let Wandell center the third line and pair Benn with Ribeiro and Morrow again. 

Then again, Mark Crawford might think completely differently than I do. But this is just what I think should happen. What say you?

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