If it weren’t for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ absurd offence, the hockey world might be talking about the Chicago Blackhawks’ ability to light the lamp right about now.
Although their record of 2-0-2 isn’t outstanding, the club has scored 18 goals, second to Toronto, and if it weren’t for some particularly weak goaltending from Cam Ward, they’d be farther up the standings. With Corey Crawford set to return next week, that issue should soon go away. What might not is the goal scoring.
Last season this team ranked 21st in goals as Patrick Kane suffered a downturn and Brandon Saad didn’t come anywhere close to replicating the production of Artemi Panarin. Depth scoring was also an issue as only seven players had double-digit goals for the club.
This year, however, the offence has come around. Kane seeming to bounce back has helped, but the biggest factor has been the emergence of the Jonathan Toews-Alex DeBrincat-Dominik Kahun line. By pairing Toews with the two youngsters, Chicago appears to have re-invigorated its captain.
If you’re willing to look past the Maple Leafs section of the scoring leaderboard, you’ll find Toews and DeBrincat right at the top. Toews leads the NHL with five even-strength goals and all of his three assists have also come 5-on-5. DeBrincat has seven points of his own, six at full strength. The dynamic duo, and to a lesser extent Kahun, has also driven the play to the tune of mid-50 Corsi numbers that are very strong relative to a Blackhawks team that’s average in the possession game.
As the Blackhawks core ages, a new wave is needed and DeBrincat is the obvious choice to step into the breach. Last season, he led the team in goals with 28 and scored a more-than-respectable 52 points. Now, he’s getting an ice-time boost of 3:24 with a power-play time boost of 1:55, and it’s paying off enormously so far.
Giving DeBrincat the plum assignment alongside Toews has revealed a strong chemistry between the rock-solid centre and the water bug winger. Because their styles are so different the line has a couple of different looks.
On Thursday night, Toews showed a perfect example of how his strength on the puck can create opportunities for DeBrincat as he drew two defenders and found his partner in crime for the one-timer.
Toews is going to draw a lot of defensive attention, which should give the quick and elusive DeBrincat the opportunity to find open spaces with some regularity.
Another thing Toews does to help DeBrincat succeed is take on the dirty work. The sophomore winger is the shortest player in the NHL according to official listings at 5-foot-7, and weighs in at just 165 pounds. The line’s other winger, Kahun, is just 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds. As a result, Toews provides the size and strength for the group, which means he does more forechecking and crashing the net than your average centre. When he’s successful retrieving the puck, DeBrincat has the ability to finish the job as he did on this goal against the Maple Leafs that Toews didn’t actually assist on, but helped create.
Toews is no Mark Stone in the theft department, but his 53 takeaways ranked 58th in the NHL last season. It’s a relevant part of his game and while defences are disorganized DeBrincat can find his holes.
The sophomore winger can also work as a perimeter playmaker while Toews drives the net in a manner not too dissimilar to the way Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan work in Calgary. In the two clips below from the Blackhawks’ win over St. Louis, DeBrincat doesn’t directly feed Toews, but he sets up the shots that the centre capitalizes on by going to the net.
For the Blackhawks to bounce back this year a few things need to go right. Kane needs to be among the league leaders in points, Crawford has to stay healthy, and a Duncan Keith rebound is required.
Toews and DeBrincat combined for just over 100 points last season, so it’s unfair to assume they will be the world beaters they’ve been so far. That said, it’s clear that something has clicked here, and the two appear to complement each other extremely well. Sprinkle in token contributions from their unheralded rookie running mate and the Blackhawks have themselves an explosive line.
With Kane as the centrepiece of another group, suddenly the club’s top-six looks more menacing than expected. That’s probably not enough to make them a big-time contender again, but it could help pry their window back open — if only an inch or two.
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