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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Will dramatic line changes liven up offense?

By Jesse Rogers

Jack Skille/Jonathan Toews/Patrick Sharp

Troy Brouwer/Tomas Kopecky/Marian Hossa

Viktor Stalberg/Dave Bolland/Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell/Jake Dowell/Fernando Pisani

When the media members saw how the Chicago Blackhawks were lining up for practice on Tuesday, we couldn’t get to our twitter (@espnchihawks) accounts fast enough.

Four new lines. Wings at center. Centers at wing. Fourth liners were first liners and so on and so forth. The sky was falling. And judging from the reaction of the hockey public, you didn’t disagree.

While very dramatic, it’s not all that unusual. By the Hawks’ own admission they have two players -- Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp -- carrying the load and even Hossa has slowed down, not appearing on the score sheet in the last three games.

So with 10 games under their belt, five-on-five scoring slowing down and -- maybe most important -- two days to think about it, coach Joel Quenneville went a dramatic route and turned things over.

Does he do this more than most coaches? Probably not. This team allows him to do it, since not many rosters employ fourth-line players that can move up to play first line. The Hawks have used the word interchangeable regarding their forwards over the last couple years.

Kane
Patrick Kane will spend some time on the Blackhawks' third line after a slow start to the season.
But was this a message sent or a chemistry experiment? The answer is probably a little bit of both.

I don’t think there is any doubt Patrick Kane would not be playing with Dave Bolland if he was off to a hot start. He hasn’t been awful but he knows he can be better than two goals, five assists, and a minus-7 rating.

“For most of us, especially myself, you want to take it upon yourself to start helping those guys [Hossa and Sharp] out,” Kane said after practice on Tuesday. “And start producing here. Enough is enough.”

It’s simple. Kane has to play better without the puck so he can have it more. When he’s had it, he’s been as good as ever.

A smaller message may have been sent to Fernando Pisani, though it might not be needed. He knows zero points and a minus-3 isn’t going to cut it, so he’ll have to earn his way off the fourth line.

“Obviously, it’s not the start that I wanted,” Pisani said. “I just have to continue to work hard and get better every day… [I need] to get more shots on net. And try to get an ugly goal there.”

On the other side, a positive message was sent to Kopecky. He’s done all that’s been asked of him and now he’ll have to play a more complete and bigger role as a center. Quenneville isn’t married to the idea of him there but said “it’s something to try.”

Skille moving up with Sharp and Toews seems more like the chemistry experiment part of the equation. Skille has been fine but does he deserve top-line minutes over Stalberg or Kane? This is where the balance comes in. Again, something to try.

Bottom line, it’s doubtful Kopecky will play the next 72 games at center. It’s also doubtful Skille will play with Toews and Sharp for that long, but strange combinations sometimes make for the best lines. Two seasons ago, who thought Marty Havlat, Dave Bolland, and Andrew Ladd would turn out to be arguably the Hawks best line? Not a Toews or Kane to be found there. And last season, I had huge doubts when Kris Vertseeg was teamed up with Bolland and Ladd but that worked out as well.

The best and most important part of these new lines -- for now -- is Sharp’s landing at wing instead of center. He played most of Saturday’s game against Columbus there and scored his eighth goal of the season. It simply frees him up and conserves his energy for offense. And with the way he’s finishing scoring chances, that can’t be a bad thing.

Is Quenneville a mad scientist or just mad? Tune in Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Kings pay a visit and we’ll all start to figure out the answer.