Key Improvements Each Chicago Blackhawks Line Must Make
The Chicago Blackhawks are in prime position to win their third Stanley Cup in the last five years.
They lead the NHL in points through 33 games, and they have four solid lines that continue to play productive hockey.
However, with starting goalie Corey Crawford sidelined temporarily with a lower-body injury, each of those lines will have to step up to make up for his absence.
Here's a look at how each of these four lines can improve.
First Line: C Jonathan Toews, RW Marian Hossa and LW Patrick Sharp
2013-14 Stats: C Jonathan Toews, 33 games, 12 goals, 16 assists, plus-eight
LW Patrick Sharp, 33 games, 14 goals, 15 assists, plus-11
RW Marian Hossa, 28 games, 13 goals, 11 assists, plus-14
Analysis: This is not only the Blackhawks' best line, it is one of the best lines in the league. In addition to their offensive prowess, the presence of Toews means this line is going to be defensively responsible and not cut any corners in order to build up their point totals. Toews is also dominant in the faceoff circle, winning 55.2 percent of his draws.
Toews, Sharp and Hossa are making their shots count. All are connecting on at least 10.9 percent of their shots, with Toews leading the way at 13.8 percent.
That last figure indicates where this line can improve. Toews is obviously a talented, well-rounded and driven player. Like many all-around superstars, he tends to be more unselfish than he should be. Occasionally, Toews is looking to set up his linemates or his defense a bit too much, and he passes up excellent scoring opportunities.
This is not a huge problem, but it's one area where this line could get better if it is going to improve in the coming months.
Second Line: C Michal Handzus, RW Patrick Kane, LW Kris Versteeg
2013-14 Stats: C Michal Handzus, 16 games, two goals, three assists, plus-one
LW Kris Versteeg (with Blackhawks), 14 games, two goals, six assists, plus-three
RW Patrick Kane, 33 games, 17 goals, 23 assists, plus-four
Analysis: The second line has been in transition since the start of the season. Head coach Joel Quenneville has been working on combinations, and this is the one he has settled on—for now.
There are no guarantees that he will stick with this trio on a long-term basis, but Handzus may work out as a decent center for the explosive Kane because he is smart, diligent on defense and he does a decent job (49.8 percent) in the faceoff circle.
Versteeg has not hit his stride yet since returning to the Blackhawks, but he does have a solid offensive mentality. That means he is not going to pass up scoring opportunities just so he can feed Kane. That's ultimately a good thing because it will make opponents respect his talents.
If this line is going to get better, Versteeg has to start hitting the net more often, and Handzus has to show some offensive capabilities as well.
It can't just be about Kane, who is having a sensational year and is the Blackhawks' leading scorer. If Handzus and Versteeg can become more viable scoring threats, this second line will be nearly impossible to contain.
Third Line: C Andrew Shaw, RW Jeremy Morin, LW Brandon Saad
2013-14 Stats: C Andrew Shaw, 31 games, nine goals, 10 assists, plus-10
LW Brandon Saad, 33 games, 11 goals, 12 assists, plus-16
RW Jeremy Morin, 13 games, one goal, four assists, plus-two
Analysis: The third line is vitally important to the Blackhawks, just like any other contending team. Quenneville is not looking at Shaw, Saad and recent minor-league call-up Morin for explosive scoring, but he is looking at them to provide a spark when the team needs it. That can come by delivering big hits, playing consistent defense or scoring the timely goal.
Shaw is one of the team's most electric players. He understands his role, and he will do whatever it takes to win. If that means challenging a bigger player or blocking a hard shot and putting himself at risk, he will do it every time.
Shaw is a hard worker, and he is scoring well as the season approaches the halfway point. However, he lacks consistency with his shooting. Sometimes his shot will find the top corner, and other times his shot will miss the net by two feet. He also needs to do a better job in the faceoff circle, where he is winning just 42.3 percent of his faceoffs.
Saad was a good player as a rookie last year, and he has taken his game up a notch or two. He must continue to scratch, claw and fight to get better. His makeup indicates he will do just that.
Morin was playing with the Blackhawks' minor-league team in Rockford of the AHL before getting called up, and he needs to show he can contribute on both ends. He has had several chances in the past, but he has never been fully embraced by Quenneville. He must show he can play consistent defensive hockey and take advantage of his offensive opportunities.
Fourth Line: C Marcus Kruger, RW Ben Smith, LW Brandon Bollig
2013-14 Stats: C Marcus Kruger, 33 games, four goals, 10 assists, plus-four
LW Brandon Bollig, 33 games, three goals, four assists, plus-seven
RW Ben Smith, 26 games, four goals, seven assists, plus-three
Analysis: The fourth line has to be the instant energy line for the Blackhawks. This trio is not going to get the ice time that the first or second line gets, but when Quenneville taps Kruger on the shoulder and he gets a chance to lead his linemates onto the ice, they must bring it every shift.
Do they do that? Most of the time. Kruger is a hard worker who will think before each move that he makes and that can cause a problem because he may not react quickly enough. However, when he senses an opportunity, he will push the action aggressively. He is also dynamite in the faceoff circle, winning 55.2 percent of his draws.
Bollig is an enforcer who did not get on the scoresheet at all in 25 games last year, so he is light years ahead of where he was. He must continue to produce at his current rate, and he also needs to answer the bell if the Blackhawks need someone who can stand up for his teammates.
Smith has played with the Blackhawks in each of the three previous seasons, but it looks like the 2013-14 season is the one that he will make his mark. Smith works hard, is intelligent and knows what to do in all situations. He plays aggressively in the offensive zone and responsibly in the defensive zone. He just needs to continue to get better.