In my preseason preview of the Chicago Blackhawks’ forwards, I identified the team’s left wing as a clear area of weakness compared with the rest of the roster. I just didn’t have faith in the inexperienced players like Richard Panik, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz that would be seeing time there, and I previously suggested the team should look at a few veteran players to ease the transition for the new kids.
However, I can admit when I was wrong and now is the time for me to do so. Much to my surprise (and surely the surprise of many hockey fans as well), Panik has scored four goals in three games while Motte put up two points himself in what has been a tremendous start to the season for both players. While it is slightly unusual to see these depth players filling the net in the place of stalwarts like Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, their production is welcomed all the same and has been key for the Hawks at the start of their 2016-17 campaign.
Related – Blackhawks Roster Preview: Defensemen
Panik Provides the Offense
For a guy that scored all of six goals in 30 games with the Blackhawks last season, scoring four in his first three games of this young campaign is definitely something to take note of. His effort in scoring a hat trick on Saturday night against Nashville was especially exemplary of his increased confidence and improved execution of skillful plays compared to last season.
The first of his goals saw him charge into the zone with force before using his strength to box out Matt Carle and his skill to tuck the puck past Marek Mazanec for a 3-0 Chicago lead in the first period. His exuberant celebration afterward personified the explosive start he has had to this season, but he would soon prove that he had more to deliver for the Hawks against their division rivals.
Richard Panik with a sick spin-o-rama goal for the Hawks. Celebration ain't bad either… pic.twitter.com/3sYLTvyaof
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) October 16, 2016
His second and third goals came off great plays in front of the net from Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, but his positioning and ability to create space in front of the goal are worthy of recognition all the same. In the past, Panik might have deferred to his more veteran teammates when it comes to pouncing on prime opportunities in high-danger scoring areas, but the early returns from this season indicate that his increased confidence has led to actual changes in his style of play that has been accompanied by improved results.
Not only did Panik’s results include a hat trick on Saturday, but he also played more than 17 minutes and recorded a +4 shot differential at 5v5, thus indicating that the strength of his play extended to more than just his prowess as a shooter. And with slow starts from Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov already limiting the offensive production of the top-six, Panik’s danger in the offensive zone is even more valuable.
Motte Fitting In
At the start of the offseason, it appeared that Motte would be battling with Schmaltz to earn a spot on one of the Blackhawks’ top two lines due to the departures of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen. Because of Schmaltz’s draft pedigree and reputation as a high-end prospect, many assumed that he would be the more productive of the two young collegiate players as they both tried to crack the NHL roster. Instead, Motte has been the one really turning heads in Chicago to start the 2016-17 season as he played well in the preseason and managed two assists in his first three regular season games.
One of the biggest factors in his success that I have noticed has been his active stick and tenacity on the forecheck. He even made an excellent play in the second game against the Predators this season in stripping PK Subban in the offensive zone and drawing a penalty just before he could make a pass to Marian Hossa at the front of the net. Subban is obviously an excellent player and even though Motte’s play won’t show up on the stat sheet, I guarantee that it made an impression on the Blackhawks’ coaches and front office.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) October 16, 2016
He currently carries a poor 42.31 CF% (Corsi For Percentage) at 5v5 according to corsica.hockey, but he has made several impressive plays in the early going that indicate he just needs more time to adjust to the faster NHL game before he starts dominating shot differentials as well. As that adjustment takes place, his flashy plays will increase in number and his underlying statistics will gradually improve.
Related – Blackhawks Roster Preview: Goaltenders
Overall, both players have been tremendously valuable for the Blackhawks as the team hopes to overcome slow starts from their stars in an effort to gain valuable points in the tough Central Division. A full 82-game season will be needed to determine if these starts are the beginning of a revelation for the Chicago roster or just a passing phase, but the early returns have certainly been exciting for hockey fans.