We have to start this conversation with Marian Hossa. He played alongside Toews for most of the previous season, and coach Joel Quenneville may be content with settling for comfort on the top line to start the season.
The main issue here is Hossa struggled to keep up on the top line last season. From a defensive forward standpoint, he’s still solid enough. But offensively, he’s a step behind and likely to only lose ground moving forward.
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Other primary options on the top line who have been brought up are Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik. Schmaltz is the youngster just out of college who’d offer a ton of playmaking potential and good speed alongside Toews. However, it’s no certainty he’d immediately adjust from the jump between college and NHL action.
Panik impressed during a short stint on the top line during the 2016 postseason. He’s a power forward who has no problem crashing the crease and getting dirty goals. However, he was in the AHL during the previous season as well. There’s no guarantee he can replicate what he did in his short run last season during an 82-plus game season.
Outside shots to grab a spot on the top line, in my estimation, would be Ryan Hartman and Mark McNeill. Hartman projects as more of a bottom-six guy, but Q might like to use an Andrew Shaw-like player on the top line. In that case, Hartman is the closest comparison the Blackhawks have.
McNeill may seem like an odd pick, considering the Blackhawks don’t seem totally sold on him as NHL capable. However, if he has a really strong training camp, he could supplant Hossa on the top-line right wing. He also a power forward who can create some of his own scoring chances, and he needs more of an opportunity to shine (or fail) at the NHL level.