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Chicago Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat Needs Top-Six Spot Or AHL Stint

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CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 27: Alex DeBrincat
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 27: Alex DeBrincat /
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Alex DeBrincat has been relatively quiet in his first NHL stint, having spent most of his time in the bottom six. It brings up an important point: The Blackhawks need to find a top-six spot for DeBrincat, or send him to the AHL.

(Sorry, Mario. We’re talking about Chicago Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat again.)

All of the excitement surrounding DeBrincat and his NHL debut has now died down, as the Blackhawks are struggling through the early portion of the 2017-18 season. For his part, DeBrincat has five points in 12 games, with a minus-4 rating.

DeBrincat has shown flashes of the talent that led to him being OHL Player of the Year in 2016-17, but we haven’t seen that nearly as much. DeBrincat hasn’t been noticeably bad by any means, but he’s been almost invisible many nights, which is arguably just as problematic.

On social media, you can see people suggesting DeBrincat might need an AHL stint for some seasoning in the professional hockey ranks. I think that’s definitely an option, but not the only option. Let’s discuss two of them now.

Argument for a top-six spot

Here’s the other option I think is in play. Some of you might think this is a crazy thought considering DeBrincat has been just so-so on the bottom six, but I have an argument in favor of moving him up.

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  • Remember when the Blackhawks brought in Nick Schmaltz at the start of last season and touted him as a top-six talent? Then do you remember when Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would not put Schmaltz in the top six, and the rookie struggled mightily going both ways?

    Then, do you remember when Schmaltz got a vote of confidence in the form of second-line centering time to start this season? Look at what’s happening now. Schmaltz is one of the Blackhawks’ most dynamic forwards and among the team’s possession leaders.

    Now some of that could be rooted in Schmaltz having his own AHL stint (we’ll talk about that later). But more importantly, Schmaltz got A) that vote of confidence and B) time playing alongside at least one big-time NHLer in Patrick Kane.

    Neither of those points can be underestimated, and I think DeBrincat’s early NHL career could work in the same mold. DeBrincat looked really solid alongside Schmaltz and Kane in training camp. Sure, that was against a lot of AHL-type competition, but it was a lot more positive than anything we’ve seen from the second line since opening night.

    The fear, seemingly, is that a second line featuring no players taller than 6-feet would get pulverized by competition. And admittedly, Schmaltz and DeBrincat have not adapted to the avoiding-big-hits style Kane has learned in his NHL career.

    But when are they going to learn that otherwise? They can learn it at the AHL, but that’s not NHL competition. There’s a massive step up. With something like that, you kind of just have to throw guys in the deep end and let them adjust.

    So I don’t necessarily buy into the fear over a small second line. I think more positives would come from it than negatives, especially when it comes to DeBrincat. He can do so much more playing alongside guys like Schmaltz and Kane — playmakers who can skate — than playing alongside Patrick Sharp, Artem Anisimov, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma.

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    DeBrincat on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad, for a very brief time, didn’t work. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t work on a line with two guys he was noticeably comfortable playing alongside in the preseason.

    Argument for an AHL stint

    Full disclosure: I think this will happen for DeBrincat at some point this season. He seems to be going directly down the Schmaltz track for breaking into the NHL. It’s worked fairly well for Schmaltz so far. Could it work for DeBrincat?

    I’d say it’s possible. I’m not sure DeBrincat lacks confidence, like Schmaltz appeared to in his early NHL time. But I also think there’s a lot DeBrincat can learn about the professional game from spending time in the AHL.

    DeBrincat would get the chance to absolutely slay AHL-level competition while getting obvious top-six minutes. He can get his feet under him and be “the guy” again, like he was in the OHL. While with the Blackhawks, he just isn’t going to be “the guy” right now. He gets lost in the shuffle trying to get NHL-ready.

    In the AHL, lesser opponents and lesser stakes (no offense to the IceHogs) will allow DeBrincat to just be a professional hockey player for the first time, versus trying to fill a mold as the next big thing with the Blackhawks. Then he could focus on positioning, teammate and opponent habits and patterns, what works and doesn’t compared to the OHL and the like.

    Then, he comes back to the NHL, gets planted in the top six where he belongs and has that learning curve behind him. It could pay off in a major way for DeBrincat.

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    The top concern for some — his size — will take a lot longer to deal with. That’s not something an AHL stint can improve. DeBrincat isn’t going to get taller, but he can add muscle and learn about playing an avoid-the-hit style, like Kane does. That will all have to happen over time, regardless if its in the NHL or AHL, so people will need to get past that.

    Conclusions

    Overall, I’d rather DeBrincat get boosted to the top six to start November, just so we can see what happens in real-game action. The Blackhawks have a very relaxed schedule coming up, so this is as good a time as any to get him acclimated to top-six time and duties.

    The Blackhawks don’t play again until Wednesday, at home against Philadelphia. The Blackhawks then face Minnesota, Montreal, Philadelphia (again) and Carolina over the 10 days after that first Flyers event.

    That’s a pretty soft schedule with a lot of time for practice. Why not push DeBrincat now, when the season is early and the opponents are weaker, to see if he can perform at a top-six level? None of this “one night on the top line” stuff. An actual push, preferably alongside Schmaltz and Kane.

    If that line is turned into dust against Philly, I’ll concede I’m wrong about the viability of an all-small second line. But I don’t know that whoever has been on the left wing has been saving Schmaltz (who has gone out with multiple injuries already) and Kane from big hits to begin with. It really shouldn’t make a difference in that regard, having DeBrincat on the left wing.

    Then, if DeBrincat proves he’s top-six ready, he’s already there. And if he doesn’t, you can decide on sending him to the AHL. It might be an appropriate move at that point.

    Next: Blackhawks Roundtable: Underwhelming Forwards, D-Men

    I just see the Blackhawks doing the exact same thing with DeBrincat that they did with Schmaltz. It’s worked well enough for Schmaltz, but regiments aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing in hockey. The Blackhawks need to commit to a course of action on DeBrincat and stick with it.

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