You knew change was bound to happen for the Chicago Blackhawks this season when it came to their lineup, and it has happened before today’s game against Nashville
After a giddy two-game scoring explosion to start the season, the Chicago Blackhawks have since been inconsistent on offense. The recent desert trip saw the ‘Hawks struggle to eke out a win against the hapless Arizona Coyotes and then get annihilated by the upstart Vegas Golden Knights.
The team has struggled to mount sustained offensive pressure on opponents thus far. There is room for debate as to what is the root cause of this power outage. Is it too much scrambling around in the defensive zone and ineffective breakouts? Or is it incompatible line combinations? Chicken or the egg, or all of the above?
Let’s start with the forward lines
So Alex DeBrincat will make his first appearance at right wing on the top line. This promotion might seem premature, but it is the right thing to do. This kid does scorer things.
This wildly prolific OHL scorer showed enough skill and hockey IQ to make the roster. Quenneville has cited his play recognition as a standout quality that has caught his eye.
DeBrincat has been mired on the third line playing with Patrick Sharp and Artem Anisimov, the latter being an athlete I have previously targeted as a struggling forward. Separating DeBrincat from them will help identify what the problem is.
Is DeBrincat not NHL-ready, or are his linemates dragging him down? DeBrincat is destined to be a top-six forward, so he must play in the top six and play well. If he struggles there, it would be best to send him to Rockford to play top-six minutes regularly and develop his NHL game.
Panik slides down to the second line to play left wing. This comes as a surprise, as Ryan Hartman has displayed good chemistry with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane. The idea is that Panik will provide the big physical element with skill and some grease in the crease. I’m not sold on this move, but we’ll see how it “pans” out. See what I did there?
Da Windy City
Line 3 retains Sharp and Anisimov, but receives the addition of John Hayden in a promotion from the fourth line. This significantly changes the focus of this line, previously a shooter-grinder-scorer combo to shooter-grinder-grinder. I would have preferred a combo of Sharp, Tommy Wingels and Hayden for more speed and bite, but again we’ll have to see how this works out. Sitting Anisimov would identify if Sharp is lagging or being weighed down by Anisimov.
With Wingels moving up, the fourth line will be Lance Bouma, Wingels and Hartman. The “Energy Line” will not be lacking in energy with the insertion of Hartman. Once again, Tanner Kero is the odd man out.
It starts with the defense, though
The blender changes are also affecting the defensive pairings. Per The Athletic’s Scott Powers:
This is the ascendance of Jan Rutta to the top pairing with Duncan Keith, which is fully deserved. Per Corsica, Rutta is having a more positive effect on play than Brent Seabrook, who was previously paired with Keith.
Rutta is definitely a faster skater who can force zone entries to the perimeter with his speed, size and long stick. He might not have Seabrook’s long-range outlet pass skill, but he makes clean puck retrievals and defensive zone exits. This could be a real game-changer for the ‘Hawks.
Last year’s combo of Gustav Forsling and Seabrook was disastrous at best. Forsling looked lost and Seabrook was overcompensating and getting himself out of position. But this year, Forsling has greatly reduced the errors and lapses in judgment and has played will with Rutta. This new combination could work with a speedy puck mover and a slower stay-at-home defender.
The combo of Michal Kempny and Connor Murphy could be an intimidating duo with its size, skating and heavy style. Both have been prone to mistakes, but this may be the time where Quenneville must commit to developing these two defenders.
Jordan Oesterle and Cody Franson round out the second third pairing, and both have been quietly effective. Oesterle is also prone to some mistakes behind the net, but the veteran presence of Franson can help with his occasional case of the yips.
What would you do?
I’m not Q, but here is what I would like to see.
Saad-Toews-DeBrincat Need offense? Put a potential big scorer on top line.
Hartman-Schmaltz-Kane Leave well enough alone.
Sharp-Hayden-Panik Sit Anisimov. This line will hustle.
Wingels-Kero-Bouma Inject speedier center with Kero.
Keith-Rutta Elevate best right-handed defenseman with Keith.
Kempny-Seabrook This has worked in the past.
Forsling-Murphy Speed and size, kid combo needs to develop.
The acid test
So as the Nashville Predators come to town tonight, this new configuration will be put to the test. Again, all the advanced stats that we like to peruse are all well and good, but they don’t measure the will to win.
The ‘Hawks came out flat in the last tilt with the Predators, and we will be on the lookout for that uninspired monster to not rear its ugly head again. And furthermore, the blender can always be turned on again in-game by Coach Q if these newly blended lines don’t work out as planned.
Let’s see if the recipe is a winner. And as always, LET’S GO ‘HAWKS!