In the coming weeks, the Chicago Blackhawks have two key players coming off the injured reserve list: goaltender Corey Crawford and center Artem Anisimov. While Crawford has yet to practice, Anisimov skated on Saturday and Sunday with the team. Head coach Joel Quenneville said the veteran center was “just ok” on Saturday but “looked better” on Sunday morning so his return after their bye week is uncertain.
When Crawford is healthy, he will jump right back in net. Unfortunately, no timetable has been officially set for his return. While Jeff Glass has been a great story, Anton Forsberg has provided the Blackhawks with good to very good goaltending on most nights (with the exception of the Dec. 28 game against the Vancouver Canucks). Unless things dramatically change, Glass will likely complete the season in Rockford. However, it’s reassuring to know there is a Plan B available.
Anisimov is an interesting situation. He was brought in from the Columbus Blue Jackets to stabilize the center position and for two seasons he did just that. He has a great two-way game while Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin became the league’s most dynamic duo.
This year, he started a bit slow but was finding his stride when he went down against the Canucks with an upper-body injury. Fast forward and Kane and Nick Schmaltz have found some chemistry, David Kampf has reinvigorated the third line and Tommy Wingels has solidified the fourth line. So what does Quenneville do when Anisimov returns?
Anisimov’s Return to Second Line?
It’s possible to move Schmaltz back to the wing and play Anisimov at center with Kane on the right side. In that case, Anisimov becomes a bigger but slower version of Ryan Hartman, filling the role he had over the past two seasons. Hartman could then provide energy on the fourth line.
Return to Third Line Center
Third line center is the role Anisimov had when he was injured so this is the best option, centering Patrick Sharp and Alex DeBrincat. In his absence, Kampf was called up from Rockford and injected life onto the third line. After trading for Anthony Duclair, the line looked dangerous on Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets accounting for both goals in the 2nd period. If Anisimov were put back as the third line center, Kampf would either drop to the fourth line or be sent back to Rockford.
Return to Fourth Line Center
While it may be tough placing a guy who makes $4.5 million a year on the fourth line, having this luxury isn’t a bad thing. Coach Quenneville has always preferred to balance his lines so he can roll all four. This would mean either Wingels or Lance Bouma would be a healthy scratch.
There is no indication that a trade involving Anisimov is in the works. However, with the emergence of Schmaltz as a top-6 center, Kampf as the third line center and several other bottom-6 pivot men on the roster, Anisimov may be most valuable as a trade piece. A team that has cap space and needs a center that can play on the second or third lines as well as on the power play and penalty kill could use a player like Anisimov.
Multiple reports have the Buffalo Sabres trying to trade left winger Evander Kane who is a UFA at the end of the season. The Montreal Canadiens are open to talks about left winger Max Pacioretty, though he has one more year after this at $4.5 million. The Columbus Dispatch has reported veteran defenseman Jack Johnson has requested a trade. Maybe the Blue Jackets would like to reunite with Anisimov and pair him with former Blackhawk, Panarin.
While these players could all make Chicago more dangerous in 2018, it may be difficult to trade him with three more seasons on his contract with a cap hit of $4.55 million annually. Trading him could be easier in the offseason.
When Anisimov does come back from injury and with the addition of Duclair, the Blackhawks could use the break to completely mix things up and see how things shake out. Here are some potential line combinations:
DeBrincat – Toews – Saad
Duclair – Schmaltz – Kane
Hinostroza – Kampf – Hartman
Sharp – Anisimov – Bouma/Wingels
There are so many moving parts with the forwards. Tomas Jurco has been a healthy scratch since being recalled from Rockford. He is probably headed back down when Anisimov is activated. John Hayden is also with the IceHogs to get some confidence in his game. Dylan Sikura, a 6th round draft pick by the Blackhawks in 2014, is wrapping up his senior year at Northeastern University in March. As reported in October by Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, Stan Bowman is hoping to sign him to his entry-level contract.
Just spoke with Stan Bowman … one notable thing he said was he expects Northeastern's Dylan Sikura to be this year's John Hayden
— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) October 25, 2017
This would allow Sikura, a 5’ 11” center to dive right into the playoff chase. This could change things as well but that is several weeks away. Until then, Quenneville and the Blackhawks staff have some downtime to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.