Approaching the halfway point of the season, the Chicago Blackhawks are no closer to knowing what their forward lines will look like come April then they were in October, but does it matter?
Over and over again -- while fans and media chatter about who should play with whom -- players and coaches continue to undersell that point. After all, look at their record with so much shifting. But probe them further and most, if not all players, would like to stick with one line for as long as possible.
Ironically, Marian Hossa, who is at the top of the list of players who prefer consistency, has been moved around all season and continues to put up big points while making the people around him better. If that continues the Hawks might have more than one contender for the Hart Trophy as the MVP of the league.
Hossa rejoined Jonathan Toews last game and they, along with Dan Carcillo, formed the Hawks’ best line. Carcillo returned after missing six games and played well with Hossa and Toews. Their tic-tac-toe passing play that forced Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard out of his net in the second period Friday was a thing of beauty, even though the Hawks couldn’t finish on the play.
Carcillo shows flashes of being a top-6 fixture, but his long-term status there is still way up in the air.
Again, the Hawks find themselves with a hole at center on the No. 2 line. Patrick Kane's move back to the middle may be due to Marcus Kruger's injury and Brandon Pirri's leveling off, but something needed to be done for Kane. He was too “quiet” at wing despite getting some points. Mysteriously, Kane and Toews didn’t show the chemistry they used to have so it didn’t come as a shock when Hawks coach Joel Quenneville switched Kane to the middle with two hot scorers -- Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg. Kane had the puck more on Friday and his pass to Brent Seabrook to win Friday’s game was on the money, per usual.
People may wonder why Pirri was sent back down after Quenneville raved about him just days ago. Young players have peaks and valleys within games and from game to game. There are subtle system issues which pop up on tape and if it exposes the Hawks defensively, that’s the quickest ticket to the minors for a young player. It’s why Kruger is an anomaly and has the edge over other young players on the Rockford merry-go-round. His valleys, if he even has them, don’t dip in the defensive end very far and his hockey IQ is high enough that even if he’s not getting points he’s keeping plays alive offensively.
It doesn’t mean the Hawks aren’t in the market for a center but it does mean when Kruger returns from his head issues he should have his job back, unless Kane takes off at center again of course.
Big Jimmy Hayes had a nice debut, almost scoring on his first shift Friday. He’ll probably get a chance to stick around at least until Kruger is healthy. More important than anything, he and the other call-ups from Rockford continue to get their feet wet in the NHL on a winning club. It’s a great luxury for the Hawks. They aren’t desperate for the young players to produce but give them needed experience which should pay off later.
And it doesn’t hurt for opposing team’s scouts to get a look at them in an NHL uniform. Make no mistake about it, the Hawks will make a deal before the deadline in late February and prospects we keep seeing could be on the move.
Quenneville continues to give chances to the players on his third line, trying to find the magic from last postseason. Dave Bolland is fine and will do his thing but Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik continue their spotty play. The trio had a bad shift on Todd Bertuzzi's goal in the second period Friday. It was one of the few times Pavel Datsyuk, in particular, had some good looks and eventually the Wings got the Beruzzi goal. That line was better when Stalberg was on it for a few games and he might be there again in the playoffs.
There is still plenty of time to work out the kinks as the Hawks march on in the new year, starting Monday with a matchup against the Edmonton Oilers. Since losing 9-2 to them on Nov. 19, Chicago has taken off while Edmonton has flattened out. Payback could be in order. If December (10-2-1) was any indication of the Hawks’ play going into January, the Oilers might be in for a long night.