Tweaking the Blackhawks’ Forward Lines

The 2019-20 NHL hockey season is officially underway and the Chicago Blackhawks commenced their first matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague as part of the NHL Global Series. Regrettably, they came out on the wrong side of a 4-3 score for their first loss of the season.

The Blackhawks don’t take the ice again until this coming Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, so we have a while to let this one fester. Why not use our time wisely and discuss the initial forward lines? One thing head coach Jeremy Colliton has going for him is he has lots of options with his line combinations. I’m sure we will see many different combinations as the season progresses. Based on what we’ve seen so far, would you change anything? Let’s start at the beginning and take it from there.

Related – Blackhawks’ Roundtable: Who Will Get These Firsts?

Blackhawks’ Starting Forward Lines from Game 1

Here are the forward lines the Blackhawks iced in their first game of the season against the Flyers. It’s also primarily the same lineup they used for their last few preseason tilts.

Alex Nylander-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane

 Alex DeBrincat-Dylan Strome-Andrew Shaw

 Brandon Saad-David Kampf-Dominik Kubalik

 Drake Caggiula-Ryan Carpenter-Zack Smith

Brendan Perlini (healthy scratch), Kirby Dach (injured/non-roster designation)

The Blackhawks’ First Line

I’ve struggled with the mentality of putting Toews and Kane together. I guess I’m a victim of the carryover from coach Quenneville who kept them apart so the opponent had to “pick their poison”. But Colliton played them together for the majority of their successful run at the tail end of the 2018-19 season.

Should Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane play on the same line for the Chicago Blackhawks? (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s hard to argue with the results. Both players benefited from career-high seasons. They still appear to complement each other well. Plus, there’s more depth in the lineup, which brings new weapons on the second line and beyond (more on this below).

But before we move on, let’s talk about the left wing on the top line. So far, this spot has been given to Nylander. The young 21-year-old is trying to take advantage of his second chance with the Blackhawks to prove he belongs on an NHL roster. It certainly is true Nylander has enough skill to make things happen when he’s placed with other skilled players. He showed that on this line in the preseason, and also scored the first goal for the Blackhawks in Prague. Colliton spoke highly of Nylander after the game, so expect him to stay on the top line for now.

But I’m not sold on Nylander being the best option in that spot. Colliton has substituted Drake Caggiula on that line in the preseason and during the first regular-season game. Caggiula is better at retrieving pucks and therefore giving Toews and Kane more chances on offense. This could be something to keep an eye on moving forward. Other options? Perhaps Saad or Shaw.

The Blackhawks’ Second Line

Let’s move on to the second line. Good gosh in heaven, don’t break up DeBrincat and Strome! Even though they’ve been quiet so far in the preseason and the first game, it’s too soon to mess with their proven past chemistry. But is Shaw the right fit with them? Shaw brings a lot of great things to the table, and on paper it seems his tenacity and net-front presence would be a good fit with the set-up guy and the shooter. But for some reason, it just hasn’t clicked. Maybe they just need more time.

Chicago Blackhawks celebrate
Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are expected to be together on the second line for the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

But what about this Kubalik guy? The Czech native came over from Europe and so far has been as good as advertised. He had a really strong showing against the Flyers, standing out all night and generating three shots on goal, four hits, and one blocked shot while playing on the Blackhawks’ third line. He’s looked good playing with Saad; but what more could he do with the skilled combo of DeBrincat and Strome? It would be an easy change; simply swap Shaw and Kubalik on the second and third lines, respectively, and see what happens for a game or two.  

Related – Blackhawks’ Strome Has a Lot to Prove

The Blackhawks’ Third Line

This is where I make my most sweeping changes. This is ironic because the Saad-Kampf-Kubalik line has been a solid line so far. But we have to look at the big picture. I’ve already made my case for Kubalik moving up. Kampf, on the other hand, is the weak link. So far in the preseason and first game, he’s had a hard time winning faceoffs and he’s just not as offensively-minded as Colliton likes to think he is. I personally think he’s holding both Saad and Kubalik back.

While Saad would potentially fit with the top line, could you build a third line around him in the name of balance? It hasn’t worked out in the past; Saad tends to perform better with the big wigs. But maybe it’s time for this power forward to find his own identity. Coach Joel Quenneville couldn’t bring it out; can Colliton?

Brandon Saad Blackhawks
Could the Chicago Blackhawks build a competitive third line around power forward Brandon Saad? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What if you reunited Saad and Shaw? Mark Lazerus of The Athletic pointed out that these two did some damage on a line together in the 2014 Western Conference Final against the LA Kings. “I just mentioned that to Shawzy the other day, actually,” Saad said. “We had success like that, and hopefully we can get another taste of that.” (from ‘A modest proposal: To balance the top nine, the Blackhawks should go back to the future’, The AthleticChi – 9/20/19)

Granted, that line also included Kaner. But hey, two out of three ain’t bad! Saad and Shaw could easily rekindle some old chemistry if they lined up together again.

We’ve already established a change that should be in order here at center. Enter Smith. I don’t know, maybe I’m giving the former Ottawa Senator too much credit. But he did win a respectable 49.1% of his faceoffs last season (Kampf was at 45.3%) while also putting up 28 points. It’s worth seeing if he can handle the job better than Kampf.

By the way, Smith is strongest with left-handed faceoffs, while Shaw is more comfortable with right-handed faceoffs. The two could easily share this duty for more strength and balance on the dot.

The Blackhawks’ Fourth Line

The current shutdown/grind line is Caggiula, Carpenter, and Smith. Well, in my scenario we’ve already moved Smith up to the third line. But the Blackhawks could still keep Caggiula and Carpenter together. Simply now add Kampf to the mix. Carpenter specializes on right-handed draws and Kampf on left-handed draws. As with the third line, you would have balance and options regarding faceoffs. Perlini could be an option here as well to see if he can add some spice. Heck, Perlini would be a fun addition on the third line too. Oh, the options!

Finally, one could still substitute Caggiula on the first line and Nylander on the fourth line when it fits best with the flow of the game. Besides, newcomer Nylander should have to prove his worth as an effective player no matter his linemates.

Chicago Blackhawks Drake Caggiula

Drake Caggiula could add grit on the fourth line for the Chicago Blackhawks. Or he could provide tenacity on the first line. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports) (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Blackhawks’ Proposed Forward Lines

Based on the above discussion, here are my proposed forward lines for the Blackhawks moving forward:

Nylander (Caggiula)-Toews-Kane


Saad-Smith-Shaw (Perlini)

Caggiula (Nylander)-Carpenter-Kampf (Perlini)

To summarize, Toews and Kane stay together for now, with Nylander to complement them. Caggiula is an option as needed.

DeBrincat and Strome acquire a new linemate in Kubalik, to establish what they can do together.

The third line gets revamped around Saad. Give him a reliable center in Smith, and an old friend in Shaw to see if some new (and old) chemistry works.

Take the pressure off Kampf as third-line center and let him excel on the fourth line. Have him and Carpenter balance the left and right faceoffs (as with the third line), and play Caggiula and Nylander interchangeably, depending on the first lines needs. Perlini is the floater for now.

*Note: I did not include Dach in this exercise as we have no history on him yet. Plus we have no idea when or for how long he will play when he is available. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the table once he’s healthy.

Related – Blackhawks’ Expectations in Week 1

Perhaps it’s too soon to pull out the line-blender. After all, the Blackhawks have only played a single game in a long and grueling season. One thing is guaranteed; there will be adjustments along the way. The above is what I would like to see right now based on what we know.

But let’s face it; I could put a similar piece together two weeks from now and it might be completely different. Who knows what the lines will look like in January. Or April. But it sure is fun to contemplate!

What do you think Blackhawks’ fans? Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!