Blackhawks’ Debate: Best Forward, Defensive Pairings & the Power Play

It looks like the Chicago Blackhawks are going to keep us all on the edge of our seats for the remainder of the season. They’re just as much fun to watch as they are frustrating to watch. But it gives us a lot to talk about. Today Meghan Dillon and Gail Kauchak came together to discuss the current state of the team. Looking back on our February thoughts, it’s interesting to note how much has changed.

For example, last month we didn’t really have an answer for increased bottom-six production. But head coach Jeremy Colliton did. This month, Patrick Kane is showboating on both the first and third lines as needed. Brandon Saad is filling in admirably wherever Kane is not. Dylan Sikura and Brendan Perlini have rather successfully taken spots on the top two lines, respectively. And David Kampf has fortified a strong fourth line.

Also last month we were still debating whether netminder Corey Crawford would return, and if defenseman Henri Jokiharju might be recalled from the Rockford IceHogs. It’s since become clear that Crawford has made yet another incredible comeback, and Jokiharju will most likely be in the AHL until next season.

Related – Blackhawks’ Roundtable: Secondary Scoring, Jokiharju & Goalies

But hockey is a fast and furious sport, which is why we love it so much. Below we ponder three questions about the Blackhawks as they continue their quest for the 2018-19 playoffs.

As noted above, the Hawks have recently changed up their forward lines and now have a relatively solid four-line rotation. It’s a team effort, and everyone’s contributions are important. But there have been a few stand-outs. It’s difficult to pick just one, but that’s what we’re here for! In your opinion, which forward would you say has been most integral to the Hawks’ offensive success?

Forward Integral to Success

Meghan Dillon

Despite him not being his best the past few games, I’m going to go with Kane. His stats this season speak for themselves. He’s on track to finish the season with even more points than he did in his historic 2015-16 season. He reached the 100-point mark for the second time in his career in the March 18 game against the Vancouver Canucks, and had a 20-game point streak earlier in the season. I even wrote a piece earlier in the month about his case to win the Hart Trophy.

Patrick Kane, Blackhawks
Many would agree that Patrick Kane is the forward most integral to the success of the Chicago Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kane makes everyone around him a stronger player, and the possibility of a playoff spot would have been dismissed weeks ago if it weren’t for him. It’s a team game, but Kane’s one of the strongest players on the team.

Gail Kauchak

A plethora of people would automatically pick Kane here. And I certainly wouldn’t blame them. After all, where would the Blackhawks be without Kaner’s playmaking abilities, and all those goals and points?

But here’s the thing. For every goal that’s scored or assist that’s made, there’s someone doing the dirty work behind the play. Kane is really awesome at the finish, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Which is why I have to go with one of the best two-way forwards in the game for this section. You betcha, my pick is Captain Jonathan Toews.

Toews is having a bounce-back season (31 goals, 41 assists, 72 points) and is currently on pace to surpass career-highs (34G, 44A, 76P) in all three categories. As a matter of fact, he needs only four more goals and the same amount of assists to get this done.

Toews plays a heavy game and is responsible defensively. He’s an integral member of both the power play and penalty kill units. He centers the top line, and his 56% on faceoff wins ranks top in the league. Not to mention the intangibles of being captain and leader of the team. He’s recently taken rookie Sikura under his wing.

Need I say more?

Switching gears, the Blackhawks’ defense has tightened up of late, yet they still have a lot of work to do. Core players Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are struggling to maintain their former glory. Erik Gustafsson and Connor Murphy both have their pros and cons. Meanwhile, Gustav Forsling, Carl Dahlstrom, and Slater Koekkoek are still being rotated in and out of games on a regular basis. What would be your ideal defensive pairings moving forward?

Ideal Defensive Pairings

Meghan Dillon

Personally, I’m a big fan of Murphy and Dahlstrom together. I think they are the closest thing to a perfect match when it comes to defensive pairings.

I wish the circumstances were different, but, unfortunately, the Hawks don’t have the luxury of time to experiment with different pairings. It behooves them to focus on what works for the rest of the season. Then they should make it top priority in the offseason to improve even more on the back end.

Gail Kauchak

It’s a relief Colliton separated Keith and Seabrook. These core defensemen still have something to offer, but two declining players on the same pairing is a recipe for disaster.

Keith and Gustafsson seem to be working out together. Both are workhorses who can handle the heavy minutes. Gustafsson had one of his better games recently against the Canucks on both ends of the ice. And it was Keith with the primary assist on Gustafsson’s game-tying goal. The two complement each other well.

Chicago Blackhawks' Erik Gustafsson Dominik Kahun Duncan Keith
Chicago Blackhawks’ Erik Gustafsson celebrates with teammates Duncan Keith and Dominik Kahun. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

What I don’t like is the rotation of Dahlstrom, Forsling, and Koekkoek. None of these players can find their groove if they’re sitting out for two to three games in a row. I agree with Meghan; keep Dahlstrom and Murphy together. They make a solid shutdown pairing. And I’m for Koekkoek getting a permanent spot next to Seabrook. From when he’s had a chance to play, he makes more all-around contributions than Forsling. I guess in this scenario Forsling is the odd man out.

Keith – Gustafsson

Koekkoek – Seabrook

Dahlstrom – Murphy

Finally, the Blackhawks’ power play had a lovely hot streak, but it has struggled as of late. They are currently deploying a top PP unit of Kane, Toews, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, and Gustafsson. Their second unit consists of Brandon Saad, Artem Anisimov, Dominik Kahun, Keith, and Seabrook. As the playoff push continues, what adjustments would you make to the power play units, if any?

Power Play Units

Megan Dillon

Like I said regarding the defensive pairings, the Blackhawks don’t have the luxury of time to help fix this issue. Only small changes should be made to help increase their chances of scoring on the power play. They could spread out the stronger players a bit and focus on who works well together.

Chicago Blackhawks celebrate
Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, and Erik Gustafsson are all part of the top power play unit for the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

At the end of the day, the goal is to get enough points to make the playoffs. Improving the power play will help the Blackhawks make it closer to the offseason, but they shouldn’t make any big changes or take unnecessary risks. My answer: stay the course.

Gail Kauchak

It’s obvious the first unit is a constant threat. But they’re becoming too predictable, and other teams are starting to figure them out. In addition, when they’re on the ice almost the entire power play, the opponent can take advantage of their fatigue to get odd-man rushes the other way.

I would attempt to balance the time between the first and second units a little more. After all, that second unit could do some damage if given the chance. I struggle with both Keith and Seabrook on the PP unit, but Seabrook’s wicked shot is such a threat. Maybe take Keith off and put another forward out there. Perlini? Sikura? Oh, somebody call Colliton now!

Chicago Blackhawks Brendan Perlini
Could Brendan Perlini add a threat to the power play for the Chicago Blackhawks? (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

There’s only a handful of games left in the regular season for the Blackhawks, and it’s still up in the air whether they will make it further. Perhaps Kane or Toews will step up even more in the end. Or the defensive pairings will solidify in the remaining contests. Who knows, a stronger power play could still make a difference.

Either way, these questions and more will be answered soon enough.