It doesn’t matter how we crunch the numbers. By raw points, he’s opened up nearly a 20-point lead on second-place Jamie Benn, and there are top-50 NHL scorers who have literally half his total. At even strength, his 2.67 points per hour are more than all but two other forwards. On the power play, nobody can touch his 8.08 points/hour clip.
Even by his own lofty standards, Kane is having an incredibly productive season, but he hasn’t done it alone. He's had help. As usual, he doesn't face the toughest opposition (that honour goes to Jonathan Toews), but he's also been gifted with two strong complementary talents he's played with almost all year.
Historically, Kane has seen his linemates shuffled over the course of a season. That’s changed this year, as outside of some shifts where head coach Joel Quenneville wanted Kane out with Toews, he’s mostly stuck with the same two linemates. We can see how rare this is and how he’s produced with his regular linemates when we compare this season to past years.
|Season||Linemates||w/ top linemate||w/o top linemate|
|'11-12||Hossa, Sharp||487 TOI, 54 CF%, 2.7 PTS/60||797 TOI, 56 CF%, 2.0 PTS/60|
|'12-13||Bolland, Sharp||392 TOI, 45 CF%, 1.8 PTS/60||351 TOI, 56 CF%, 3.1 PTS/60|
|'13-14||Saad, Handzus||341 TOI, 56 CF%, 2.8 PTS/60||715 TOI, 55 CF%, 2.0 PTS/60|
|'14-15||Richards, Versteeg||496 TOI, 54 CF%, 2.9 PTS/60||413 TOI, 52 CF%, 1.3 PTS/60|
|'15-16||Panarin, Anisimov||761 TOI, 54 CF%, 2.7 PTS/60||236 TOI, 47 CF%, 2.6 PTS/60|
The three metrics tracked on the chart above are ice time, Corsi percentage and points/hour, and we see some interesting trends. For one, this is the first year that Kane has had dedicated linemates. In 2011-12 and 2013-14, he bounced around, while in both 2012-13 and 2014-15 he spent just a touch more time with his regular line than he did with whichever two forwards Quenneville wanted to run that night.
Interestingly, in four of the five years, Kane produced more points, and in three of the five years, he had a better Corsi percentage with his regular line than he did when mixed and matched. The exception is 2012-13, where Dave Bolland was such an anchor on Kane’s play that the Blackhawks felt Michal Handzus was an upgrade in the second-line centre slot.
We also see an evolution. In 2011-12, Chicago tried running Kane at centre for an extended period before abandoning the project. The hunt for both a second-line centre and a partner on the other wing for Kane continued for the next three seasons, with Bolland, Handzus and Brad Richards each being given a turn and ultimately failing.
Finally, Artem Anisimov was acquired this past summer, and along with rookie Artemi Panarin, the duo found chemistry with Kane immediately. Quenneville has obviously been happy, avoiding the mixing and matching he’s engaged in the last few seasons. Kane has produced extremely well. So it’s worth digging into what makes the line successful.
The 5-1 goal (at 5:30 in the above video) in a Feb. 11 game against the Dallas Stars is a good example of what makes the line tick.
Panarin brings skill to the line. It's essential, because his ability to carry the puck, make passes and finish off plays himself not only makes him an able collaborator for Kane, but it also forces defenders to guard against multiple scoring threats. Here he gains the zone, creates space for himself and forces the Stars defence to react.
Anisimov brings size, strength and the ability to go to had areas of the ice. He takes full advantage of the space Panarin opens up on this play, charging the slot, and is rewarded when the puck lands on his stick and he's able to get a dangerous shot away.
The work of that duo opens space up for Kane. With Panarin's speed and skill spreading out the defence, and with Anisimov creating chaos in front, there's an opening. Ales Hemsky needs to be more aware in that situation, as Kane sneaks behind him and knocks home the rebound before anyone else can react.
We see much of the same dynamic at work in this power-play goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Again, Panarin's speed and skill serve as a magnet for defenders, as two Maple Leafs penalty-killers make him their primary focus. And once again, we find Anisimov in the most high-traffic area, crashing the net and tying up a third defender. That leaves one Toronto defender to cover the two Blackhawks on the point and absolutely nobody on Kane.
Panarin makes the pass, Anisimov provides the screen and Kane finishes off the goal.
That's been the pattern for this line all year at both even strength and on the power play. Panarin's ability with the puck at speed keeps defencemen from cheating to Kane. They have to respect his skill level or he will make them pay for it. Anisimov wins physical contests, both battles for initial puck possession and then fights for position in traffic in the offensive zone.
Those two would be dangerous even without Kane. Give them perhaps the most gifted offensive talent in the NHL, and things get downright scary. Put the entire line on the Blackhawks roster, where Jonathan Toews and his partners are hard-matched against the toughest opponents, and it's almost unfair.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.