It is almost impossible not to include Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in a list of Chicago’s top five players, but the Blackhawks have a wealth of talent spread out over their roster. Everyone expects them to be included, and admittedly they are almost always going to be on that list, but they won’t be on this one, because this team is far more than just Toews and Kane. We already know what they bring to the table, so let’s focus the top five players who are not the Captain, or no. 88.
This season, there are a few newcomers and a guy who doesn’t always get the respect he deserves that are standing out, as well as a pair of defenders the Blackhawks can always rely on. Through the first 31 games, there have been a number of standouts, but these players have been putting on a show of their own.
Chicago’s Top Five Through 31 Games
Chicago Runs On Duncan
Duncan Keith – Defense
When you talk about the Blackhawks defense, everyone is going to start with Duncan Keith. He is a top-notch defender who glides down the ice with an ease that many players try to emulate, and it is in part how he can gobble up minutes like Pac-Man. He expends little energy on skating and is able to focus his efforts on things that help the team, like moving the puck efficiently through the neutral zone and staying on the rotation as they move through the offensive zone.
#Blackhawks block 23 shots tonight. Duncan Keith and Trevor van Riemsdyk combine for 11 of them (Keith 6, TVR 5).
— Tracey Myers (@Tramyers_NHL) December 12, 2015
Keith is not going to light up the score sheet like some defensemen around the league, but his impact is not to be overlooked. He certainly has the ability to fire a hard shot from the point that seemingly moves through the traffic as if it wasn’t even there. Since he took a blast to the face in 2010, he hasn’t blocked shots as often, but he hasn’t had to, as Niklas Hjalmarsson has stepped in and become one of the teams premier shot blockers. What Keith does do better than many players is stop passes in the defensive zone. He will slide through passing lanes to stop a pass from connecting, lift a stick from behind, or poke the puck off the passers blade before it ever has a chance to leave his stick.
There are few teams that wouldn’t like to have a player like Keith. Considering he missed a good portion of the season, he has certainly been on a roll, as he has made up some ground since his return. Keith has added 13 points (5G, 8A) since his return in late November and the team has gone 9-3-3 in that time frame. They have also climbed to second place in the Western Conference, in part because of what Keith does for his team.
A Perfect Fit
Artem Anisimov – Center
When Stan Bowman pulled the trigger on the Brandon Saad trade, the entire city of Chicago was stunned. The world as they knew it had been tilted, and could never be righted again. Panic hit, and it took days before the smoke to clear before people started to see the trade for what it was. Yes, it was a tough loss, but there were bright spots. Of course, the shiniest piece that has been expected to slot in where Saad was is still down in the AHL, but the real gem of the deal has had a very positive impact on the Blackhawks second line from his opening shift of the season.
— Linda B (@HWKSFN81) December 14, 2015
Of course, Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane have something to do with that as well, but if you take a look at the lines Patrick Kane has skated on in years past, he has never had the kind of success that he has had with Anisimov centering. Sure, there have been times he’s had stellar play alongside Captain Toews, but it has always been better for the team as a whole to split the two for more even scoring distribution.
What Kane has with Anisimov is the consistency at center that he has lacked for most of his career. The big Russian is rarely caught out of position, making it easy for Kane to anticipate where he will be as he looks to create plays. In fact, the trio on this line all seem to have a sixth sense in that regard. The puck just always seems to find one of them, and that is in large part because they all are willing to go to great lengths to get and keep the puck. Anisimov is regularly seen digging pucks out off the boards, and it seems like there is a behind the net dish right to the front of the net executed on a nearly nightly basis, simply because they all know it is a safe bet one of them will be waiting right there to snipe a shot top shelf.
Anisimov may have been the sleeper of this deal, but he is rarely caught sleeping on the ice. Apart from his face-off percentage, there are very few things you can knock him for, and even that isn’t as much of a factor as it would appear, because all three are more than capable of stealing a puck if the drop doesn’t go their way. This trade just might go down as one of, if not, the best in recent years, and that’s saying something since it means no. 20 is playing in Columbus.
The Breadman Has Risen
Artemi Panarin – Left Wing
There is little doubt that Artemi Panarin is one of the best undrafted players to make it into the NHL this year. He is even one of the top candidates for the Calder Trophy as he has led nearly every rookie scoring category for most of the season. What’s even more miraculous is that this was billed as the year of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Granted McDavid had an early injury, but Panarin was hot on his heels from the beginning, and Eichel has yet to really challenge Panarin or McDavid for Calder consideration.
Of course, McDavid and Eichel are not playing for the reigning Cup Champions or on a line with Kane, but Panarin has been a lot more than a yard ornament in the Patrick Kane Show. Panarin and Anisimov should each get some producer’s credits on that one for sure. Panarin has had instant chemistry with his linemates and has some seriously wicked hands when it comes to keeping the puck on his stick through heavy traffic. He can stickhandle and dangle just as well as Kane, and he has already got the one thing that Kane took some time to develop.
Panarin shoots the puck freely, and passes when the lane is open making him as unpredictable as Kane is now. When Kane came into the league, he often allowed his instinct to pass the puck to dictate plays, making him a lot more predictable. With two players on one line that can both make or create plays, the opposing team is forced to pick their poison and hope that the one you leave alone doesn’t bury you. Unfortunately, they usually do, as this line has been responsible for the vast majority of the Blackhawks scoring. There have been a number of times that Panarin and Kane play the puck like two cats with a fat little mouse, like they did in the video against the Islanders.
One thing is certain, this line has chemistry to burn, and they are using it with alarming regularity to light up the opposition. What is even more exciting for Blackhawks fans is that there will come a point when the other lines start to get hot as well, and this team will be even harder to stop. Panarin may be a long way from home, but he is adapting quickly to his life in Chicago and with the Blackhawks, and the fans are more than happy to go along for the ride.
Earning His Payday
Brent Seabrook – Defense
Brent Seabrook is the unsung hero for the Blackhawks, often taking a back seat to his former defensive partner in Duncan Keith, but there is a reason Bowman dumped a barrel full of money at Seabs to keep him around for the long haul. He is a key part of the core group of players and is the go-to guy in the locker room with Toews. In fact, there have been times when Seabrook has taken it upon himself to help get his Captain in line when he loses his cool. In addition to being a leader, Seabrook has upped his game and is already on pace to possibly top his previous career-high in goals (9) as he is already halfway there (5).
Brent Seabrook has had a Norris Trophy caliber season so far, but he won't get any recognition because Duncan Keith is on his team..
— △⃒⃘ (@MixedMamba12) December 2, 2015
Seabrook has a ripping slap shot that can often look like it has eyes of its own, or perhaps it is that few people really want to get in front of his stingers. He is also a solid leader on the ice and has often been deployed with young blue liners because of his steady presence and his ability to stay in on the plays. He is almost never caught out of position defensively, he can deliver punishing hits, and is almost always on the mark with his passes even in traffic. Finally, he is always ready for that one-timer from the slot when you need him in the clutch.
Seabrook is a big body, which is something the Blackhawks don’t have a lot of on the blue line. Most of their defensive corps are on the smaller side of the scale for the NHL, as they tend to be on the lankier side; But when Seabrook has an opponent in his sights, you better believe they’ll be looking to get out of his way. He is an excellent defender, on both ends and has seen his role expand with each season. Especially this year as he was asked to fill Duncan Keith’s skates during his absence.
Seabrook is a top-notch defenseman with a terrific hard shot, but he is also an outstanding mentor for the young defensive group the Hawks are grooming for the future, and that will leave a mark on the organization long after he decides to hang up his skates.
Crow My Goodness
Corey Crawford – Goalie
There is no chance the Blackhawks succeed without a solid goaltender, and in spite of the fact that Corey Crawford rarely gets the respect he deserves he has always managed to shine the brightest while under the most scrutiny. This season, he has been outstanding. Particularly in his last ten games, where he has gone 7-2-1 grabbing points in eight of those contests, including two shutouts in his last two games.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) December 14, 2015
Crawford may not sport the flashy numbers at year’s end, but he still racks up his fair share of wins, and he is a valuable part of this team. They go no place without the Crow. He can keep them in games when the defense has an off night, or their offense can’t seem to find the back of the net, and he can help the team pour it on when everything goes right. What is even more spectacular is his ability to shake off the occasional softie, or fluky tip that might trickle past him, or a bad night where he just can’t seem to track the puck as well as he’d like. There isn’t a goalie in this league that doesn’t pitch the occasional stinker, and Crawford is certainly not immune, but mentally he is always up for the challenge.
This season, Crawford is carrying a .924 save percentage, which is the second-best percentage of his career (in a season where he has been the number one netminder). Earlier in his career, he gave up a lot more goals on his glove side, but night after night he has stonewalled shooters snapping pucks out of the air like he has them on a tether. He has been maligned by the media and fans alike, but it just doesn’t seem to faze him as he simply carries on about his business.
There isn’t a building in the league that doesn’t love to chant ‘Craw-ford’ just about any time he sets foot on the ice, and sometimes even when he doesn’t as they did in Los Angeles a few weeks ago with Scott Darling in net. And yet, it seems to fuel him, especially when the bright lights of the playoffs are shining on him.
In Boston of 2013, nearly every NHL expert that had a mic was willing to talk about Crawford’s glove side and how it would be the downfall of the Hawks. Bruins fans chanted themselves hoarse through every game in Beantown and Crow made it his mission to silence ever critic. In fact, he did the unthinkable, as goalies tend to be very superstitious with their rituals and he threw out the baby with the bath water, changing out his gear for all new equipment. The move drew a lot of concern from the experts because it is simply never done, and yet Crawford never looked back.
At the end of the day, Crawford isn’t afraid to lose, and that goes a long way. It sounds counter-productive, but to be successful, you simply have to be willing to put everything on the line and risk failure before you can ever really succeed.
Belief Is Sometimes More Effective Than Skill
This is something that the Blackhawks have learned over the years as a team as well. They don’t need to be the best team going into the playoffs; They just need to be in the playoffs. This team’s foundation is built on their belief in themselves and each other. They succeed as a team, and they fail as a team. There is no one individual to blame or put on a pedestal because they are all one unit, and that has helped to carry them through the tough rounds, the early exits, and the hard-fought battles that have reaped some of the biggest rewards.
It starts with their leadership, but it is successful because the role players are willing to buy in. They all commit to putting in the effort during the offseason, they all work hard on and off the ice during the season, and they all work together when they put a leg over the boards. There is always strength in numbers, and the Hawks have that in spades.
Belief is a hard sell when you are down 3-0, but the Hawks never play like they are out of the game until the final buzzer sounds. They fight back from what appears to be insurmountable deficits, whether it be goals or games in a series; They simply won’t quit until there is nothing left to fight for.
It makes those losses even more heartbreaking, like the game seven overtime loss to the Kings in 2014. But it also makes the comebacks that much sweeter, like the dismantling of the Ducks on the back of Captain Clutch in 2015, or the 17-second execution of the Bruins in 2013 when two role players (Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland) netted the tying and game-winning goals.
There is no shortage of belief in Chicago, and that is what makes them so resilient and dangerous.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske