Editorials

Chicago Blackhawks’ Potential Top-Line Combinations

By Mario Tirabassi
Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa (81) celebrates his goal with forward Jonathan Toews (19) during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa (81) celebrates his goal with forward Jonathan Toews (19) during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /
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The roster is nearly set, but who will play on the Chicago Blackhawks’ top line?

Since the rumors surrounding Jimmy Vesey and where he would end up signing have ended, the Chicago Blackhawks now have to focus their attention to their roster of players who will actually be suiting up for Chicago in 2016-17.

While Vesey was thought to be a potential fit at the top-line left wing spot for Chicago, he’ll be taking his talents to the Big Apple and Chicago has to look at others options for its top line.

It’s no surprise that captain Jonathan Toews will be the top-line center for Chicago, but the wing positions are where the questions begin to arise. Since arriving in Chicago, Marian Hossa has been slotted in the top-line right wing position for Chicago most of the time.

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Hossa, though, is beginning to age and his play is beginning to slow down, and signs point to a replacement being made for him on the right. So, who will fill the gap?

Here are a few options for the Blackhawks’ top-line combinations:

Potential Line One: Panik At The Disco

Last season, the Blackhawks made a trade in January to bring in Richard Panik from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Panik was splitting time between the Leafs and their AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies all season, but when he came to Chicago, the organization gave him a chance with the Blackhawks and he did not waste it.

Playing well enough to impress head coach Joel Quenneville and his staff, Panik was given the top-line left wing role late in the year and in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the St. Louis Blues.

In that series, Panik proved his worth to Chicago and was a key factor in pushing the series to seven games. It is more than likely that Panik will get the first crack at being the Blackhawks’ top-line left wing with Toews and Hossa, figuring he plays well during training camp.

Panik’s line chemistry with Toews and Hossa worked well for a short time last season. It will be interesting to see if he can not only continue that chemistry for an entire year, but also if the trio can produce enough offense.

While Toews will get his opportunities and make plays for his linemates, Hossa’s offensive production has dwindled in recent years. While he still is one of the top defensive forwards in the league, Hossa’s goal production has faded in his later years and makes pairing him with another winger whose best NHL season saw him only tally 17 points very concerning.

Line Probability Score: 9/10

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Potential Line Two: No Schmaltz Task

While Vesey may not have decided to sign with the Blackhawks, there are a few other top college hockey players who will be joining Chicago in 2016-17.

Tyler Motte from the University of Michigan, Luke Johnson from the University of North Dakota and Nick Schmaltz from the University of North Dakota have signed on with the Blackhawks organization this summer and look to contribute right away.

Motte and Johnson will have to prove a bit more in training camp to secure NHL roster spots, but Schmaltz looks the part of an NHL-ready rookie already.

Schmaltz ended his NCAA career at North Dakota with 76 points (16 goals, 60 assists) in 75 games played and a national championship this last spring.

It had been a waiting game for the Blackhawks organization after drafting Schmaltz in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, but this summer Schmaltz signed his entry-level deal and will more than likely have himself a spot on the NHL roster coming out of training camp.

If Schmaltz plays well in whatever role he is given out of the gate, more likely a third-line wing position, Schamltz could see himself playing alongside Toews and Hossa in the near future. If Hossa isn’t playing up to snuff, Schamltz could be paired with Toews and Panik.

Versatility to play either wing position as well as experience at center makes Schmaltz a highly useful player for the Blackhawks in many situations. If given the top-line opportunity, Schmaltz could see himself as a dark horse for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.

Line Probability Score: 5/10

Potential Line Three: Going Nuclear

The Blackhawks have done this combination in the past, and recently it has resurfaced in times of need. If the Blackhawks’ top line isn’t producing enough offense this year, they may go nuclear and place Patrick Kane on the top line with Toews and Hossa.

Granted, this would require breaking up the formidable second-line of Kane, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, as well as forcing either Hossa or Kane to play in an off-wing position. But it has been done before and it has worked before.

Kane and Toews were paired together in their early years with the Blackhawks, including their 2009-10 Stanley Cup-winning season. But more recently, splitting the superstars has been the recipe for success in Chicago.

When absolutely necessary though, the “nuclear” line has been brought out to spark offense for the Blackhawks. It was seen in last season’s playoff series against the Blues and was a big part in helping push to a seventh game.

If the Blackhawks go to Kane-Toews-Hossa on a regular basis, it would mean a superbly heavy top line and leave a ton to be desired from the Blackhawks second line with Anisimov and Panarin being expected to produce without the help of Kane. Which makes it highly unlikely to happen unless extreme measures are needed.

Line Probability Score: 1/10

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Potential Line Four: Going Nuclear – Version 2.0

While splitting up Kane and Panarin on the second line would be short-lived, if it happens at all, why have to split them up at all? Think if Panarin and Kane were centered by Toews. Now, pick up your jaw from the floor.

If the Blackhawks wanted to stack their top line with their most intimidating combination, it would be Toews with Panarin and Kane on his wings.

Toews has the ice vision and distribution ability to feed either Kane or Panarin all day. Opposing defenses would literally have to pick who they would leave open every time the Panarin-Toews-Kane line came down the ice.

Are you going to focus on Kane? Panarin one-timer. Trying to shut down Toews? Kane stick-handles everyone into submission. Going to hold down Panarin? Two top-five forwards in the league are now open and your goalie is sliding the puck out from behind him, good job.

It literally is a scenario right out of NHL17, but where would it leave the rest of the line combinations? Actually, not in too bad of shape. Take this four-line lineup, for instance:

Anyone opposed to this?

It wouldn’t give the Blackhawks too much of a hole in their lineup as the second-line combination of Panik-Anisimov-Hossa can still be both offensively dangerous and defensively sound, while Chicago’s third and fourth lines remain virtually the same.

It could very well be a win-win situation if Quenneville, known for juggling his lines more than a court jester, gets inventive with his combinations.

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Line Probabilty Score: 5/10

So what do you think? What combinations would you put on the ice for the Blackhawks in 2016-17? Let us know in the comment section below!

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