Joel Quenneville had an interesting surprise for those covering the Chicago Blackhawks’ practice Thursday. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Richard Panik skated together on the top line, an indication of what the team’s lineup might look like for its game Friday night against the New Jersey Devils.
Yes, it appears the nuclear option is being rolled out for the eighth game of the regular season.
This is the most significant lineup change that Quenneville has made in the young season. We’ve seen the likes of Marian Hossa, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz bounce around the lineup, but the Hawks tended to have some guys in familiar spots. Toews and Panik were usually together, for example, and the same could be said for the dangerous Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Kane line.
But despite the usual success of Panarin-Anisimov-Kane, the past two weeks weren’t terribly encouraging for Chicago. That line outscored its opponents by six goals (7-1) during 5-on-5 play, yet the Hawks are below .500 right now. Most of that can be pinned on the penalty kill, not poor play at even strength, but you can see why Q might want to shake things up. Even with the most rosy view, this is a flawed team that wasn’t going anywhere with one line, no matter how good it is.
You have to imagine part of this stems from concern about the recent performance of Toews. Whatever excuses you want to make about his linemates, his conservative style of play or his defensive responsibilities, the Blackhawks need more than one even strength point in seven games. He’s tied for highest-paid player in the NHL, and he’s currently tied for 260th in points.
There have been positives — he’s putting pucks on net (2.73 shots on goal per game) and driving possession (57.2 percent Corsi at 5-on-5) — but ultimately when you have the league’s highest cap hit, you need more than encouraging underlying numbers.
So I think getting Toews going is a big part of this. I know there are big proponents of leaving the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line alone because you don’t mess with a good thing, but it’s hard not to see the bigger picture here. After a year of leaning way too much on that line, we’re seeing the limits of what that can accomplish. They need Toews kicking ass again.
On the flip side, there’s a decent chance this still leaves the Hawks with one good line. Hossa has shown flashes of his old game, but he’s not as reliable as he used to be, and his power game might not be a perfect fit with Panarin on the other wing. This also does nothing to solve the bottom-six, which still features a Dennis Rasmussen-Nick Schmaltz-Jordin Tootoo line that has little chance of lasting all season.
Still, you can see a bit of restlessness from the Hawks. They typically don’t turn to Toews-Kane on the same line until desperation starts setting in. I don’t know if you’d call Chicago desperate this early in the season, but it’s clear the team is looking in the mirror a bit. And based on the constant line blending, you get the sense they don’t love everything they see.
I think this is the right move. You can always go back to Panarin-Anisimov-Kane in a few games — or even a few shifts on Friday, let’s be honest — but if you never try anything else, you’re almost setting yourself up to fail.
And what’s the downside of all this? You end up with a one-line team ... just like they are right now?
Maybe this all for nothing when Q splits Toews and Kane up on Friday, like when he tricked us all into thinking Brian Campbell would get scratched. But for now, it looks like the Hawks are putting their two big-name forwards together to try to get something going.