One of the big things that’s stood out about this year’s Blackhawks compared to a season ago is their potential forward depth. The days of Tanner Kero and Marcus Kruger filling minutes as the third center are a thing of the past.
The Blackhawks have primarily used a third line of Patrick Sharp, Artem Anisimov, and Alex DeBrincat to open this season. It’s one of the benefits of being able to fill out the top six with Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz. Last year’s Blackhawks didn’t have the luxury.
But so far, the results haven’t quite been there for that group. Yes, it’s only nine games — where my sample size fans at?!? — but on a team that’s otherwise having a lot of success, the third line has sputtered.
Sharp, Anisimov, and DeBrincat all have 5-on-5 Corsi numbers around 43-44 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. Only five players on the roster have posted negative goal differentials at 5-on-5, and these are three of them. We’re only talking a few goals, so things could swing quickly with one monster game, but it’s a notable contrast from every other regular forward having a GF% of at least 67 percent.
While this is partially a matter of role — this is definitely not the same line Anisimov used to be on — it’s worth noting we’re not talking about Kruger levels of usage. Anisimov has taken 44 of 109 (40 percent) zone starts in the defensive end. Sharp is at 40 of 102 (39 percent). DeBrincat is at 35 of 106 (33 percent).
Last season, Kruger took 445 of 881 (51 percent) zone starts in the defensive end. So yes, the third line is getting the most defensive-minded usage for the Hawks so far, but we’re not talking about the same role Kruger used to fill. They’re getting more chances offensively, and just haven’t done a lot with it yet. They’re not getting their butts kicked, either, but it seems like this group is capable of more.
It might be too early to try to make aggressive changes, but for the Blackhawks to be clicking from top to bottom, the third line needs to get going. Among the forwards, it’s the one unit that’s not quite coming together. Even the fourth line of Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, and John Hayden has shown signs it can do more than hit dudes.
So what should Joel Quenneville do here?
The most obvious answer would be nothing. It’s been less than 10 games, and we’ve seen flashes of the talent on that line. DeBrincat, despite his size, doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the physicality of the NHL. We’ve also seen what Anisimov and Sharp are capable of in the past.
Maybe some extra time to work out chemistry is all that’s needed here. It’s just hard to ignore how the third line has struggled over the past three games. It’s fair to wonder how much patience will be given to that group when there are guys playing quite well in Rockford.
Other than doing nothing, the most obvious answer would be to do something with DeBrincat. There seem to be two possibilities there: (a) move DeBrincat up into the top six, either for Hartman or Richard Panik. (b) send DeBrincat to the AHL and recall Vinnie Hinostroza, who has eight points in six games with the IceHogs this season.
It doesn’t seem likely anything would happen anytime soon with Sharp or Anisimov. They’re veterans, and at least in the case of Sharp, he’s a truly beloved part of the locker room. One of the themes of the summer was how happy some players were to have Sharp back.
We saw a brief glimpse of Kero on the third line and Anisimov on the fourth line, but that hardly seems like the answer if the goal is to have three good scoring lines. It’s worth remembering Kero has just seven goals and 20 points in 70 career NHL games. He’s much more of a solid 13th forward than someone who could be getting 13 minutes per game next to Sharp and DeBrincat.
So the answer is probably just to stay the course for now. Patience could be rewarded if DeBrincat, Anisimov, and Sharp can build some chemistry. It’s fair to say that’s the most talented third line the team could possibly assemble right now.
But I also see Hinostroza tearing up the AHL, and it’s possible his speed could be the missing element from that third line. DeBrincat isn’t really a blazing fast skater, and while he’s held his own so far, it’s not unreasonable to think that a 23-year-old Hinostroza is ready to make a bigger impact than a 19-year-old DeBrincat. With that said, Hinostroza cannot touch DeBrincat’s shooting ability, so letting the teenager work through his adjustments to the NHL may be a worthwhile endeavor.
One way or another, the Blackhawks will want to get that third line going if they’re going to finally become the deep team that Stan Bowman envisioned over the summer. The talent is there, so we’ll have to see what Quenneville decides to do.