The top nine is the new top six. At least for now.
It’s been a common strategy in the NHL for coaches to spread out what would be top-six forwards in recent seasons across three lines. It will almost certainly kick up this season after Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan moved top-line sniper Phil Kessel to the the third line last season en route to the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup. Kessel nearly won the Conn Smythe Trophy after being the headliner of the HBK line, skating alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino.
Could Joel Quenneville be the latest to jump on the bandwagon?
Bob McKenzie is reporting that Joel Quenneville plans to spread the best of his forward group across the first, second, and third lines. A coach not known to be afraid of juggling lines and testing out new combinations, he’s willing to go as far as breaking up the left wing/right wing combo of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, which was among the league’s most potent offensive combo a year ago. Meanwhile, first line mainstay Marian Hossa is expected to be moved to the third line to skate alongside Marcus Kruger.
So to summarize: Kane will remain to the right of Artem Anisimov – as he was for a team-high 671 faceoffs last season, according to puckbase.com – while Panarin will move up to skate alongside Toews as Hossa moves to the third line.
Of course, this could mean multiple things.
The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line that carried the offense much of the year, combining for more than 35 percent of the Hawks points with a combined 225 points. Outside that threesome, there was little continuity across the Chicago lineup. With Quenneville constantly juggling the three other lines, the Blackhawks finished the year tied 20th with Edmonton in five-on-five scoring. The Hawks had never finished lower than 14th going back to 2008-09, Quenneville’s first season in Chicago. This could just be the latest development in the search for that right combination, figuring breaking up last season’s top line could best the best for the four lines as a whole.
But here’s what this could be above all – Quenneville believing Panarin is the option on the wing Toews missed last season and Hossa, who turns 38 in January, someone just not getting the job done and suited best for a third-line role.
And the numbers back it up.
Panarin’s 77 points in 2015-16 was the 12th-highest by a rookie in NHL history, the most for a rookie since 2006-07, when Evgeni Malkin and Paul Stastny recorded 85 and 78, respectively. Patrick Kane, of course had the best year of his career. Of his 46 goals – which surpassed his previous career-high by 16 – 22 of those goals were assisted by Panarin. Twenty-three of Kane’s 60 assists, also a career-high, were Panarin goals. Of course, that could be turned around as Kane assisted on 23 of Panarin’s 30 goals.
Hossa had just 33 points in 64 games last season skating mostly alongside Toews, his worst offensive output in an 82-game season since 1998-99, his first full NHL season, where he notched just 30 points in 60 games. His 0.71 points-per-game over the last three seasons are down from the mark on 0.89 he posted through his first four years in Chicago.
As McKenzie noted, Hossa skating alongside Kruger could create a ‘high-end, two-way checking line’, adding an extra dimension to the bottom six against inferior competition.
We’ll see what it brings.