The free-agent falderall appears to be over from the Blackhawks’ point of view, which has a lot of fans puzzled, and more than a few of them pissed off. The only clear and concise declaration from GM Stan Bowman after the end of the season was that the ‘Hawks were going to acquire a big, tough center to play on the second line between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

They did not. And by all the evidence available to the casual observer, they didn’t even try.

Failing to do so doesn’t just put the second line into question, it throws the entire top-nine forwards’ alignment into pure chaos. And so the speculation begins: what the hell are they thinking, and what will the top three lines look like when the season starts?

We’ll start with what we do know, then get to what we don’t. We do know that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will start on the first line, with the left wing open. We know that Hossa will be the right wing on the second line. We will then make the reasonable assumption that Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik will play the wings on the third line. So the vacancies we’re talking about are the first line left wing, the second line center and left wing, and the third line center positions.

The players likely available for those positions are: Andrew Brunette, a left winger; Ben Smith, who has played both wing and center at Rockford; Sharp, who is arguably better on the left wing but has been utilized in the center slot more of late; Marcus Kruger, a natural center; and a long-shot possibility of Jeremy Morin, another left wing. But the biggest question amidst all this confusion concerns the final contender for these positions, center Dave Bolland. It is my assertion that where he lands for the opening night face-off will strongly influence the Blackhawks’ success for the first 20 games.

David Bolland has been the third line center for the Blackhawks for four years now, and in that time has proven himself as being arguably the top shut-down center in the game today. This became most evident during the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run in 2010, when he successfully shut down the top-scoring lines on every team the ‘Hawks faced — most notably the Sedin twins, whose effectiveness was reduced to that of 5-year-olds with double-bladed beginner skates.

Now, some have argued that Bolland could be effectively used as a second-line center, and produce more offensively in that role. This may be true. However, the debate is not limited to how many goals he scores. There are three factors here: first, Bolland’s offensive output; second, his defensive contribution as a shut-down center; and third, who can do an adequate job of replacing Bolland in that shut-down role. That, I would suggest to you, is the biggest reason to keep him right where he has been.

What do we gain from moving Bolland to the second line center slot? More succinctly, can that line produce better than it has been with Bolland up the middle? I’m skeptical that it will, and the primary reason I say that is Marian Hossa. The chemistry between Bolland and Hossa has never been there. Seeing the two of them on the ice together is like watching two guys wearing blindfolds play hacky sack. The second line needs a center that can feed 30 or 40 assists to Hossa every year, and Bolland is not that guy. Patrick Sharp seemed to interface well with Hossa, and yet Hoss potted only 25 goals last season. I would argue that we will see even worse production from Hossa with Bolland at center, as we’ve seen evidence of that already.

But how does Bolland do offensively on the third line? In four more-or-less complete seasons with the Blackhawks (two of them reduced by half due to injury), Bolland has averaged 0.2 goals and 0.35 assists per game. But his cumulative +/- rating over 221 regular season games in the NHL is +40. Those numbers go up in the playoffs: 0.33 goals and 0.46 assists per game, and a +11 over 43 games played. And remember, those playoff games are against the toughest scoring lines in the league. I would hazard a guess that few teams in the NHL get that kind of consistent offensive and defensive production from their third line pivot.

And that should be the focus of attention when discussing moving Bolland to the second line — who on the Blackhawks is capable of that kind of production on the third line, when the guy we have doing it now is clearly one of the best in the league? Kruger showed last year that his defensive game needs serious work. Ben Smith hasn’t played one minute at center in the NHL to date. Those are the only guys besides Bolland who could potentially fit into that role with the lineup we have (with the exception of Sharp, whose talents would be wasted there). It’s plain to see that neither Smith nor Kruger would be a suitable replacement.

No, I see no aggregate benefit from moving Dave Bolland up to the second line center position, and in fact I believe I have shown that doing so would be a detriment to the team’s defense while failing to contribute to its offense. Bolland should stay as the third line center, as it clearly would weaken the team to put him elsewhere.

The history of the Blackhawks’ playoff success can be measured by the first 20 games. If the team is in a slump by November, no measure of effort in the last three-quarters of the season will make up the gap. That is why it’s crucial to get the lines correct straight away. Any tinkering around that takes place risks us going 3-17-0 through the first 20 games, and jeopardizing the entire season.

This is important. Where to put Bolland, and how to solve the second-line center predicament, may be the most critical decisions of the year right here and now. Training camp will hopefully solve this problem for us, but I hope somebody on the coaching staff recognizes the potential pickle StanBow has put us in, and does the right thing.