Dear Coach Joel Quenneville: Hold the Lines!


May 4, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad (20) celebrates with right wing Marian Hossa (81) after scoring an empty-net goal against the Minnesota Wild during the third period in game two of the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

About a month ago, I wrote an article for Blackhawk Up speculating about the many potential benefits that would come about from pairing Marian Hossa with his heir apparent on the Blackhawks, Brandon Saad.

As we all know, Saad has often been compared to Hoss for his outstanding two-way play and agile stick handling abilities. Given their similar playing styles, I argued that Hoss and Saad skating together for a significant period of time would allow Saad to make outstanding gains in his game and create the potential for a genuine mentor-protégé relationship to develop.

Not only would such a pairing benefit Saad, but also pay big dividends for the Hawks as a whole. With Hossa playing in the eleventh hour of his career, the Blackhawks need young, up and coming players like Saad to refine their play to the point where they can be relied upon consistently as core players of the franchise.

However, I also speculated that it was because of their semblance in playing style that Coach Joel Quenneville would likely keep Saad and Hoss separate to keep his lines dynamic. Thus, I wrote such an article within the parameters of what I call Chicago Blackhawks science fiction, because while it wasn’t an impossibility, only time would determine the degree of its fictitiousness.

Well imagine my surprise when I learned that both Hoss and Saad would be skating on the first line helmed by Jonathan Toews at center as the Hawks took on the Dallas Stars this past Sunday. Not only were Hoss and Saad on the same line, but lo and behold, their synergy was immediately palpable. Hossa and Saad combined for a total of one goal and two assists in the Hawks’ 6-2 victory against Dallas.

While I was certainly pleased with this outcome of Hossa and Saad skating on the same line, the success on the Hawks’ second line certainly wasn’t lost on me. While Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg playing on the same line is nothing new this season, their success was equally impressive against the Stars as they combined for a total of six points.

While there are certainly several theories out there as to why Versteeg has had such a strong start to the season, I would argue in court that Steeger’s success thus far can be attributed to his relatively consistent pairing with Kane. The reason for this is congruent to Hossa’s effect on Saad: similar-style play.

Like Kane, Versteeg favors perimeter puck-handling in the offensive zone to generate scoring opportunities, and while Steeger is certainly not in the same tier as Kane when it comes to stick-handling agility, Kaner at least gives him a standard to aspire towards, and the prolonged exposure to what he’s striving for in his game has obviously benefited Versteeg.

In any sport, you innately get better by watching/playing with players that are better than you, period, but this benefit is further amplified if there is a similarity in playing style that make the players more relatable towards each other. It’s this phenomenon that forms the very foundation of chemistry among lines in hockey, which is why everyone has been harping to Coach Quenneville to cool it with the line blender so such bonds have a chance to form amongst the Hawks.

Now, herein lies the big question going forward…With Kane and Versteeg, and now Hossa and Saad, Coach Q has two solid right and left wing pairings that have demonstrated goal-scoring chemistry. Steeger and Kaner have proven they are effective together regardless of who’s at the dot and there’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t be true for Saad and Hossa.

Following such a commanding win, you’d think that Q-stache now has a certain degree of faith in the current lineup, but the big concern is how long that faith will endure, especially given that the Hawks are about to embark on their biggest regular season test: the Circus Trip.

The Circus Trip is six straight away games and a very reliable pH test regarding how successful the Hawks will be in the post season. The adverse circumstances presented by the Circus Trip are so great the Hawks’ natural talent can’t surmount them alone, which is why they need to have a solid foundation of line chemistry to rely upon. This is especially true given the state of the Blackhawks defense in the wake of Trevor Van Riemsdyk’s injury. With the Hawks’ blue line not yet solidified, they will need their forwards to carry the day even more so than usual.

Thus, with the now proven formations of consistent chemistry on the first and second lines, my message, neigh, pleading to Coach Q is this: HOLD THE LINES! If ever there was a time for the line blender to be unplugged, now is the time with Hawks on the eve of their biggest regular season test. Several pieces to the line up puzzle are in place. Now Quenneville just needs to let the others fall in place.