No position took a harder hit during the Blackhawks' mass exodus last summer than left wing. Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Kris Versteeg were all traded in order to accommodate the salary cap. Artemi Panarin -- bless his soul -- was brought in, but otherwise the Hawks haven't really found many answers on the left side of their forward corps.
Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa still need a dependable left wing to replace Saad. That trio had become an elite line for Chicago in recent years. The Blackhawks secured their third Stanley Cup since 2010 with a Saad-Toews-Hossa line starting off most nights. The team is still searching for that kind of consistency with its captain's line nowadays.
Richard Panik is reportedly the next name to potentially get a look next to Toews and Hossa. The 24-year-old has spent the 2015-16 season playing with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. The Hawks just acquired him in exchange for Jeremy Morin, a winger so deep in Joel Quenneville's doghouse that he was traded away last year only to return and get stashed in Rockford.
Quenneville already seems more intrigued by Panik, which explains why he's already on the NHL roster following the trade with Toronto. And that's fine, because the former Leaf does indeed seem like a useful player. It's just that his addition has brought about the top-line speculation, and while I understand Chicago's dearth of options is a driving factor here, it seems inevitable Chicago needs to do something drastic to address this situation.
Toews and Hossa are the Hawks' top line. No matter how well the team plays with Panarin, Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov on the ice, Chicago needs to be able to depend on Toews' line as well. So far this season, the production has come and gone. The same can be said for the players at left wing.
Part of the problem is that the Hawks keep turning to players who don't seem equipped for the role. It's a shame that the most obvious option, Teuvo Teravainen, appears far more comfortable playing at right wing than left. He had flashes next to Toews and Hossa but never quite adapted properly to their cycling game. Too often shifts for that line became a series of neutral zone battles before somebody dumped the puck and next group came out. Teuvo seems to be settling in as the 3RW for the rest of this season.
And that's okay, but it means GM Stan Bowman probably has some work to do. Panik is a player in the same vein as Andrew Shaw and Ryan Garbutt, others who have seen steady time on the first line this season. They're not bad players, but it's unrealistic to expect the Blackhawks to be making a long playoff run in May and June with someone like that on the first line. Those players can create advantages in the bottom six. Boosted up to the top six, they're too often exposed, and this is the regular season we're talking about. Competition only becomes more challenging when every game counts even more.
Panik has played 151 NHL games and recorded just 39 points. He doesn't create tons of shots for himself or drive possession in a meaningful way. He might be a decent depth guy who can play a bit of the two-way game Chicago loves, but it's a fool's errand to pretend like the Hawks will be taking on elite teams in June with a guy like Panik on the top line. The team had freaking Sharp, Antoine Vermette and Teravainen on its third line last season.
So you have to imagine the Hawks are talking about this. There's a reason why Jonathan Drouin is being speculated as a possible answer. He's not without question marks -- how does a player that talent create so few shots for himself? -- but he's undeniably a potential top-six option. You don't get rated the top prospect in hockey by ESPN for no reason. There's a natural ability on the puck that Drouin owns, it feels like he just needs the right chance.
Maybe that won't come with Quenneville, but you also have to figure Bowman won't acquire a guy that Q won't play after the way the David Rundblad situation played out. If Bowman talks to Q and he says Drouin's style is an issue, you imagine the GM is going to hesitate to give up a bunch of assets to make a deal. Still, we're talking about Drouin because he has that kind of potential. I'm not saying you break the bank for him, but if the cost is a good prospect and a pick -- let's say Ville Pokka and a second-rounder gets you in the door -- it's worth talking about.
Chicago needs another quality left wing to join Panarin and right now, Marko Dano doesn't seem ready to grab that role. Maybe he will be ready by March, letting him emerge like Teravainen did last year, but otherwise, Bowman has to be looking around to see if there are other answers. Maybe the deal involves Dano, although I still wish he'd get a longer look before something like that happens.
What's clear is that the solution isn't on the roster right now. It can't be Shaw or Panik or Garbutt or Bryan Bickell or any of the other half-rate options at the team's disposal. Those are solid bottom-six forwards who will be exposed if the team gets deep enough into the playoffs. We're already seeing the first line go through ebbs and flows now because it badly misses Saad.
There's nothing wrong with using stopgaps. Garbutt and Shaw are stopgaps. Panik could be a stopgap. But the Hawks need a legitimate top-line option at left winger next to Toews and Hossa to win another Cup. That could be Dano, who has shown major league skill. Maybe Bowman is getting creative to cook up another trade. But the Hawks need another top-six left winger and right now the organization isn't flush with choices. For a win-now team, you have to wonder who the real answer is at that spot.