The good news for the Blackhawks entering the playoffs is that their first three lines seem to be ready to go. It took Joel Quenneville most of the season to find the right mix, but it’s probably fair to assume the Blackhawks’ top nine for the beginning of the first round against the Predators will look like this:
Nick Schmaltz — Jonathan Toews — Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin — Artem Anisimov — Patrick Kane
Ryan Hartman — Marcus Kruger — Marian Hossa
That’s a strong group of forwards for the Blackhawks to lean on in the postseason. The third line can take on some more defensive assignments to free up the other two lines to put up goals. The return of Artem Anisimov as the No. 2 center solidifies what should be a strength for Chicago this spring.
But the fourth line’s composition remains uncertain at this point after a season of constant change. Quenneville has a bunch of options as his disposal. We just don’t know yet how he’ll decide to use them, which leaves us to ponder which direction he might go in.
Assuming the top nine listed above, here are the remaining forwards for the Blackhawks to use on the fourth line: Tanner Kero, Dennis Rasmussen, John Hayden, Tomas Jurco, Jordin Tootoo, Andrew Desjardins, and Vinnie Hinostroza.
There’s obviously a wide variety of talents there. Rasmussen is big and best suited to play a more defensive role. Hinostroza is six inches shorter and much faster, but not as adept defensively. Tootoo has played in 723 NHL games, Hayden in just 12.
So it’s not like Quenneville has been given a limited set of toys to play with. He can take this line in a bunch of different directions depending on the matchup or situation. In fact, there’s a good chance that the fourth line ultimately takes multiple different looks during the playoffs. Quenneville has never been shy from playing those matchup games.
Projecting the fourth line
The one thing we can probably assume right off the bat is that Kero will get first shot as the No. 4 center. He finished the season playing top-six minutes with Anisimov out of the lineup and clearly has the confidence of the coaching staff.
The winger spots seem less obvious. The Hawks finished the regular season with Hayden, Rasmussen, and Tootoo on the fourth line with Kero higher up in the lineup. None of those guys have been consistent contributors all season. The reality might be that, outside of Kero, the wingers ultimately depend on how Quenneville wants that line to play.
If he wants more size, Hayden, Rasmussen, and Jurco are are well-built players listed at 6’2 or above. Hinostroza would bring more speed, while Tootoo and Desjardins would bring experience more than anything.
In the end, the best look for the Blackhawks entering the playoffs would probably see Hayden at left wing and Rasmussen at right wing. That would give Kero two big wingers to help handle the increased physicality of the postseason, and Rasmussen would be able to fill in as the fifth PK forward behind Toews, Kruger, Anisimov, and Hossa.
If you went with something like Hayden-Kero-Hinostroza, the scoring potential is tantalizing, but you might create mismatch issues on the penalty kill if Kruger or Toews gets stuck in the penalty box. So those are kinds of factors Quenneville will have to weigh when making his lineup decisions, and it’s clearly not easy. Hayden-Kero-Rasmussen is just one way to go, although it might be the smartest one to help neutralize the Predators.