In 2015-16, the Chicago Blackhawks got 28 goals from Jonathan Toews, another 20 out of Artem Anisimov and a dozen-plus from Marian Hossa, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook. But no one should take that to mean the Blackhawks had anything close to a balanced attack this past season.
During the entire campaign, Chicago’s offense relied on the duo of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. The pair hadn’t played a single meaningful minute of hockey as linemates ahead of the year but seemed as though they had Sedin-like chemistry as soon as they hit the ice together. It paid off in a big way, too. Kane netted 46 goals and 106 points to win the Art Ross Trophy, Panarin scored 30 goals and 77 points to win the Calder Trophy.
The question quickly became not if the duo would score in any given contest, but when or how it would happen. And for those who thought it was maybe a case of catching lightning in a bottle in 2015-16, a quick glimpse of the pair working together in exhibition action this past weekend sure had it looking like the magic wasn’t going to stop after one season.
But as it turns out, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville might be the best weapon opposition teams have against slowing down the Kane-Panarin combination, as the Chicago bench boss is considering breaking the duo up. As both players returned from World Cup of Hockey duty, Quenneville said there has been some consideration given to separating Kane and Panarin in order to spread out the offense across the top two lines.
"It's definitely a thought process," Quenneville said, according to the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine. "We’re saying ‘Let’s have a look at it in camp.’ And maybe we can have a different look or something to think about, at least, going into the season with Johnny (Toews) and Kaner being on different lines and having more balance on both lines."
It’s easy to understand the thought process for Quenneville, especially when it comes to getting his top line going at the same rate as his second unit. Hossa’s dip in production this past season — he managed just 13 goals and 33 points — was disappointing, and while Toews' 58-point campaign signified a decent amount of offensive production, Chicago would have loved to see their captain knocking on the door of 70 points for a third straight season. It's obvious why Quenneville wants to see both players perform better this coming season.
What makes shifting Kane's line rather than Toews and Hossa's unit intriguing is that finding a way to keep Kane producing has never been an issue. Kane’s scoring had been trending upwards in the few seasons prior to Panarin’s arrival and the defending Art Ross winner will likely continue to put up points regardless of who is on the opposite wing. Some of that has to do with Anisimov, with whom Kane was great in 2015-16, and finding a solid, second-line center to play next to Kane was a longtime want for the Blackhawks. The past season made it clear why.
The tricky part, though, is making sure Panarin continues to produce and ensuring he has a positive impact on Toews and Hossa.
While Panarin’s skill set makes him an intriguing fit on the top line next to Toews and Hossa, there’s no guarantee it will work. Patrick Sharp was a longtime member of the that line, and Brandon Saad became part of the unit during the late stages of his stay in Chicago. Both excelled alongside Toews and Hossa, but the same can’t be said for Panarin’s brief stint playing on Chicago’s top two-way unit. Though it was a test that lasted a mere 141 minutes of 5-on-5 action, Panarin’s underlying numbers with Toews as his pivot are far less impressive than those he posted skating with Anisimov and Kane.
Per Puckalytics, Panarin scored 2.99 goals for per 60 minutes in 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 alongside Kane, and that dipped to 1.26 next to Toews. Panarin fared worse defensively, too, with 2.51 goals against per 60 minutes with Kane and 2.98 alongside Toews. It’s not just Panarin who suffered, though, as Toews showed better skating without Panarin than he did with him. His goals for per 60 numbers rose and his goals against per 60 minutes dropped.
Of course, Panarin’s time with Toews offered only a small sample size to from which to judge. Once the two become comfortable with each other and learn tendencies, maybe Toews and Panarin can develop the same chemistry as the Russian winger has with Kane, and it never hurts to have a healthy Hossa on the other wing to help on the defensive side of the ice.
However, even a split of Kane and Panarin to start the campaign doesn’t mean it’s for good. Quenneville has been one to go back to the well when his team is in need of production, and that often leads to a combination of Kane and Toews on the same line. But maybe a third can be added to that duo, and Quenneville said he doesn’t see Kane and Panarin being separated at all times.
"When they're apart, they'll have shifts in games where they'll be together," Quenneville said, according to NHL.com’s Brian Hedger. "Over the course of a season, you know they'll be together at times. But that's something that's going to get sorted out…It's whether they'll be permanently together is something we'll evaluate.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.