The Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane era for the Chicago Blackhawks has been incredibly successful. When you have a playoff appearance almost every year, taken trips to the Western Conference Finals five times and won three Stanley Cup championships, the results speak for themselves.
One of the more impressive facts about this success is that Chicago has largely done it without a long-term second line center. That means someone who can create offense on their own as well as be responsible defensively in their own end in head coach Joel Quenneville's system. In fact, let's take a look at the docket of who's played there when the Hawks have reached the mountaintop.
For purely revisionist's history, when the Hawks won the Cup in 2010, Patrick Sharp, a natural scoring left wing, was the second center. In 2013, the 35-year-old Michal Handzus, affectionately (or not) referred to by fans as "Turtle," was acquired at the deadline and he played second-line center for that Cup team. Finally, last season, the 34-year-old Brad Richards was brought along, and while clearly past his prime, he proved very effective at least in the playoffs.
Evidently enough, those were all short-term solutions, especially in Sharp's case, as the ideal scenario would be to have your best left wing actually playing that position. All of those options were eventually passed over either due to positional preference, age or another concern.
However, things radically changed with the acquisition of Artem Anisimov in the Brandon Saad trade this past summer. Ironically called a young Handzus by some, whatever long-term concern the Hawks had about a player who has had some injury issues in his career didn't stop them from immediately locking up the 27-year-old to a five-year extension. This was someone Stan Bowman wanted acquire for a long time and wouldn't let get away.
A roster and system like the one in Chicago accentuates all of Anisimov's strengths and allows him to flourish. A natural two-way center with length and size (6'4, 198lbs), you'll often find Anisimov using his length and positioning well defensively, then quickly transitioning to a breakaway instinctively using his size to create space for his linemates.
The point is that Anisimov has been the perfect fit for a Hawks roster that has struggled to put things together at times. He has been the underrated driving force of a second line with Kane and Artemi Panarin that has largely done all of the scoring for Chicago. He's been less heralded than the flashy firepower of his teammates, but he deserves just as much credit. Kane and Panarin have said as much.
While admittedly less offensively gifted than his linemates, Anisimov has shown no issue of actual point production. Surround a talented player with equally or more talented players and they will always shine through. He is fourth on the Blackhawks in points with 16 as well as second in goals with 10 playing just under 18 minutes a game. That goal scoring pace may not continue all the way through though as Anisimov is shooting a blistering 26.3%, good for ninth in the league. He's only a career 12 percent shooter so that pace is definitely going to drop at some point, but it's still nice to see him pot the opportunities he's been getting like this one to show off his scoring touch:
Also in case you don't notice how often Anisimov is involved in a play, just take a look at this next clip.
This is for anyone that also doesn't see a lot of the hidden little things Anisimov can accomplish when he's surrounded by teammates that are putting on their own show. There is some scoring flair and creativity on display here.
Oh that's just a simple pass to Panarin for the goal right? If you jump to the 47-second mark, you'll note that when the puck actually gets into Anisimov's area to set it up, it bounces off of his skate in front of him and he settles it down mid air with his stick to get it to Panarin. That is not a routine play and is actually really skillful for any professional player to pull off.
These of course are the kind of nuances and crafty things he accomplishes all the time. While I don't have video evidence of it, there is rarely a play where Anisimov doesn't make the instinctive pass to clear a puck out of the zone, drive with Kane or Panarin on a break to create space or otherwise put his line and teammates in position for success. As a two-way player and excellent facilitator, he doesn't need the puck to succeed. There is always some measure of production and points to an excellent mentality and intuition.
He is also among the team's most valuable penalty killers and special team guys. Anisimov is second on the Blackhawks with four special team goals overall, two on the power play and two shorthanded. He's also often the effective net front presence on that unit. On the other end on the kill he helps anchor the league's 12th-best penalty kill, where he can use his size to his advantage. It is there defensively where a lot of his natural length and ability shines the most. Anisimov rarely over commits to a shooter and gives himself of breathing room when dealing with one. Anisimov simply doesn't make any hockey mistakes anywhere as a jack of all trades for the Hawks.
The advanced stats tell an even better story on the role he's played.
A Corsi of 53 percent at 5 on 5 -- a consistent while not wholly elite number considering Anisimov and his line get almost 67% offensive zone starts -- can still be a excellent measure of the kind of player and possession he drives. He or his line are rarely not creating scoring chances, as it speaks to the role Anisimov takes on creating room for his guys off the puck and with it, so that they aren't buried in possession.
It's more so that in Anisimov's stead, the real only dangerous line for the Hawks at the moment doesn't waste the opportunities it gets with such a heavy slant in zone starts. For a team struggling to score consistently, the value of a player like Anisimov is put on display.
All of this has gone without noting how Anisimov has also helped his line communicate.
It's a well known fact by this point that Panarin is in the ongoing process of acclimating to American culture and still learning English. While Kane and Panarin seem to have a natural instinct and feel for each other on the ice, it still pays dividends to have a veteran Russian player like Anisimov be in the middle of the two on the bench to help them iron strategy and such out.
The difference for Panarin was immediately noticeable when for a night he was promoted up to the top line with Toews. There was no translator on the line for Panarin so while he could still feel himself out with Toews and Marian Hossa like with Kane, there just seemed to be a lot lost in translation, a fact that Panarin feared himself. Like everywhere else, Anisimov was the glue that holds it all together.
That glue will continue to stick.
A friendly long-term contract for a Swiss army knife center that does it all, the Chicago Blackhawks have found their man, and Anisimov has found his home.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer and contributor for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. He is currently the sports editor at Aurora University. You can follow him on Twitter @ZigZags82.