Chicago Blackhawks: Inside the Lines

Every team in the NHL has specific roles set out for each of their lines. There are grind lines and shut down lines meant to chase the puck into dirty areas and force it in on the net, or shut down the other teams best offensive weapons. There are also the scoring lines.

The teams that have had the most success in recent years have clearly defined line roles for all situations, and the Hawks have been one of those teams under coach Joel Quenneville. This year, the Hawks are in a state of transition with several new faces, but they are still working to fill the holes, and stay within the formula that has worked so well for them.

The Role Players

Marcus Kruger’s fourth line has racked up a good portion of the teams defensive zone starts as Quenneville’s shut down line, but with gritty wingers like Andrew Shaw and Andrew Desjardins they have also been able to perform as a grind line as well. All three forwards will battle in the corners, screen the goal, or poke at a loose puck for a greasy goal.

As far as shut down lines go, this trio was Q’s go to line in many of the defensive zone starts in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs when the game was on the line. They earned the coaching staffs trust, and often found themselves on the ice in the games biggest moments throughout the playoffs. There were no bigger moments than Kruger’s game winning goal in triple OT against the Anaheim Ducks, with Shaw and Desjardins right there with him.

Because of all the line shuffling, the roles on the third line have fluctuated between a grind line and a scoring line. Certainly in last season’s Cup Final, it was a scoring line, as Teuvo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette produced a number of goals and assists in the first few games. There have been times where Bryan Bickell turned it into a grinder’s line, as he battled for the puck and introduced numerous players to the glass as well. This year, the third line has been in transition, as they have yet to find a consistent role, with players constantly being floated back and forth from both the top line, and the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

The Lottery Line

Finally, there are the top two lines. The first is more of a two-way scoring line, also referred to as the ‘Lottery Line‘ because it is anchored by two of the best two-way forwards in the game. The captain Jonathan Toews at center, and Marian Hossa on the right side. The line is always one of the teams most reliable on both sides of the puck, though they have yet to find much consistency in their scoring this year; However, Toews has terrorized several teams in the 3-on-3 OT.

The inconsistencies are likely due in part to the left-wing slot, which was previously held by Brandon Saad (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets). The top line is clearly still a work in progress. As Quenneville has employed his infamous line blender method to work towards matchmaking the third man in that trio, the line has struggled to find their offensive identity. Marian Hossa was also sidelined for a few games, putting the line into a further state of disarray. However, it would appear that a shiny, new linemate may be floating around the line up already.

The top two candidates to stick (for as long as Q’s line blender allows) are Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano, who was part of the return on the Saad trade with Columbus. Both are young centers. However, they have primarily been used on the left side.

Versatile Young Forwards

For Teravainen, a spot at center seems to be on the horizon, perhaps anchoring the third line once he gains some more experience. Prior to Artem Anisimov’s arrival, many believed he was the heir apparent to center Patrick Kane’s line; However, the chemistry between Anisimov, Artemi Panarin, and Kane has seemingly shut the door on that prospect. Though with Q, you never know when he’s going to shake things up.

At the start of the season, Quenneville seemed keen to give the young Finn a chance to etch out a spot at center; Though, that has been put on hold as they shuffle around in search of the top line’s answer on the left side. There are not many teams that could boast an offensive talent like Teravainen in their bottom six, if that is where he lands.

On the other hand, Dano seems to be looking for a long-term spot as a winger. He is currently playing alongside fellow rookie, Tanner Kero, and Ryan Garbutt, but Viktor Tikhonov and Tervainen have also had some looks on the right side.

However, after some early chemistry during training camp with Hossa and Toews, it seems Dano is destined to return to that line. Dano is simply waiting for his name to fall out of Q’s blender, as seemingly everyone else has had their opportunity on the teams ‘Lottery Line‘.

Dano proved himself to be a good complement to both Toews, and Hossa in the early stages of training camp; However, it seems he has yet to find that confidence within his game as he has moved from the IceHogs to the third line with the Hawks. There is little doubt that he would like to earn his way back to the top line, and he most certainly has the tools in his arsenal to stay there. If, he can reignite the chemistry with the two future Hall of Famers.

For Toews, the search is on. Something that Kane is all too familiar with.


The Bread and Butter Line

Two years ago, it was the L.A. Kings ‘That 70’s Line‘ with Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, and Jeff Carter (all wearing numbers in the 70’s). Last year, it was the ‘Triplets Line‘ for the Tampa Bay Lightning with Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. This year, it is the ‘Bread and Butter Line‘ with Kane, Anisimov, and Panarin.

Over the Summer, Kane got his center, as Anisimov came over from the Jackets with Dano in the Saad trade, thereby creating the hole on the ‘Lottery Line‘. Anisimov was the long-awaited big center that would complete Kane’s line, with whatever player was lucky enough to slot in on their left side.

At the time, it didn’t seem to matter who that would be, in years past, just about everyone has played on the left with Kane and looked better for it.

Certainly, it had crossed GM Stan Bowman’s mind that Panarin might be able to switch to the left side. Though, everyone had anticipated a much longer transition as the young Russian phenom, known as the ‘Breadman‘ acclimated to the NHL and life in the United States. However, it would seem that Kane and Panarin speak the same language on the ice, and it has translated into a lot of scoring. It certainly hasn’t hurt to have fellow Russians, Anisimov to bridge anything that is lost in translation on the ice, and Tikhonov as his unofficial translator off the ice.

The trio has formed one of the most daunting lines in the NHL. The Breadman, like Kane can cut through defenders like a hot knife through butter, and Anisimov is the oven that heats it all up. He excels at creating scoring chances for the wingers and cleaning up around the net. In fact, with six goals and three assists of his own, Anisimov is on pace to have the best season of his career between the two dynamic wingers.

The trio accounts for 47 of the teams 102 points on the season, making them the Blackhawks most dominant scoring threat on a nightly basis.

Drawing Inside the Lines

For Quenneville, the line blender will continue to be active until the Toews’ line starts clicking. Whether the answer comes in the form of Tervainen, Dano or another player won’t make a bit of difference as long as the trio can produce some good scoring chances and continue to help shut down their opponent’s top threats.

If the Hawks can find an answer for the top line’s gap, they just might be in uncharted territory. For the first time in Quenneville’s years as head coach in Chicago, he just might be able to set the blender aside, or at least slow it down a bit. Of course, that temptation will always be there. Quenneville is known for having an itchy trigger finger when things are not falling in line with the course he has envisioned.

The Road Ahead

The future appears a bit more uncertain for the Hawks than it has in years past. They currently stand outside the playoff picture at sixth in the Central Division and thirteenth in the League. However, if you look back on last year at the 15 game mark, the team carried the same 8-6-1 record.

The season still ended with a Stanley Cup being raised on their home ice, in spite of the teams battle to hold onto a playoff spot in the late part of the season.

This weekend should see the return of Duncan Keith, and Michal Rozsival should be available as well. Though the latter may not slot into the lineup right away, as several young call-ups have been earning their minutes. Rozsival will undoubtedly be a bit of welcome depth for Q to have at the ready.

The team has a couple more games before they head out on their annual circus trip, which has always been the benchmark to see where the team stands.

A good trip could see the Hawks right back in the hunt for a playoff spot. A bad trip would likely prompt Stan Bowman to spend the Thanksgiving holiday attached to his phone, as he looks to change the fate of the team going forward. Either way, this team is still very much a threat, with the core group largely intact, a pair of solid netminders, and a future Hall of Famer at the helm.