Who Must Step Up for the Chicago Blackhawks After Patrick Sharp's Injury?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21:  Patrick Sharp #10 of the Chicago Blackhawks controls the puck against the Montreal Canadiens at the United Center on December 21, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canadiens 5-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks know that replacing Patrick Sharp is going to be a difficult task over the next three to four weeks while the high-scoring winger recovers from a knee injury, as noted by ESPN's Scott Powers.

But if the Blackhawks are going to maintain their expected position of prominence in the Western Conference, Patrick Kane believes that all his teammates are going to have to increase their production to fill the void.

That's just what he's expected to say, and to an extent, he is right. However, the burden is going to fall on a few key individuals to keep the Blackhawks moving in the right direction.

Sharp led the Blackhawks in scoring last year as he tallied 34 goals and 44 assists. He has scored 33 goals in three of his last four seasons.

The Blackhawks have brought up Peter Regin from Rockford to take Sharp's spot on the roster. Regin played 17 games for the Blackhawks last year after he was acquired from the New York Islanders. Regin had scored 10 points in 11 games for Rockford (including two overtime goals) and was playing well.

He will play on the Blackhawks' fourth line with Brad Richards and Jeremy Morin—and a fourth-liner's responsibilities do not include replacing a legitimate 30-goal scorer. Regin will be expected to skate hard, play defense and cash in the few opportunities he gets while playing 10-13 minutes per night.

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Sharp's absence means that several players will see changes or increases to their roles with the Blackhawks. Specifically, Brandon Saad is moving up from his spot on the fourth line to Sharp's left wing spot on the second line.

Peter Regin
Peter ReginBill Smith/Getty Images

Originally, Saad was on the second line with Patrick Kane and Richards in the middle, but that combination was broken up early in the season. Now, Saad goes back to the second line with Andrew Shaw in the middle and Marian Hossa as the other winger.

That's a line with explosive potential, but that trio is going to have to prove it on the ice. Hossa is a given because he is one of the most consistent three-zone players in the NHL, and Saad is a young player on the rise because of his explosive speed, excellent shot and fine moves around the net. Shaw does not have All-Star talent, but he is a hard worker and a hustler who always gives Joel Quenneville everything he has.

One of Sharp's main responsibilities was manning the right point on the first power-play unit. Richards has been moved to that position, and it's something he may be able to do quite well.

Richards (three power play points this season) has long been a power-play specialist throughout his career in the NHL. He clearly sees the ice well and is an astute passer. Richards is not the skater he was earlier in his career, and he doesn't compare with Sharp (six man-advantage points in 2014-15) in that area. However, his deficiency can be covered by Duncan Keith, as he mans the other point spot. The two-time Norris Trophy winner can assist Richards if he gets caught in a dangerous defensive situation.

Richards has a good shot from the point, but it doesn't compare with the blazer that Sharp can fire when he has a chance to step into the puck and blast it.

However, the real burden may fall on the Blackhawks' new first line that includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg. In the past, Quenneville has rarely played Toews and Kane together during the regular season, as he has kept that option in his back pocket until crucial moments in the playoffs.

During the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, Quenneville put those two together after the Blackhawks fell behind 2-1 in the series. The duo responded immediately, and the Blackhawks won the last three games of the series to win the Stanley Cup.

PAUL BEATY/Associated Press

Based on his past history, Quenneville may keep Toews and Kane together for several shifts, a game or two, or he could keep them together for the duration of Sharp's injury. The chemistry between the two is undeniable, and it also sends a message to the team that the Blackhawks coach is going for it in an effort to overcome a rather ordinary 7-6-1 start.

While 14 games does not a season make, the standings show the Blackhawks are sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference. The competition is too tough to simply fall behind in the early going and think that a late-season rally will allow them to nail down the second or third seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

That's why Toews (11 points, plus-two) and Kane (nine points, minus-three) must pick it up. Versteeg is the X-factor here. He struggled with nagging injuries after he was reacquired last year, but he is healthy now. He scored a goal and an assist in the Nov. 5 win at Montreal, and he has impressed Kane with his all-around play.

"He might be one of our best players right now," Kane told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "He's confident with the puck, he's making plays."

If Versteeg can sustain his recent improvement, and the top line provides consistent production, the Blackhawks can find a way to thrive despite Sharp's absence.

The Blackhawks are not going to get sympathy points just because one of their star players is injured. 

If the Blackhawks can have a similar run of form as the Boston Bruins—who lost their superstar defender Zdeno Chara to a knee injury in October and who've won five of six games—they should be able maintain or improve their place in the standings.

If they don't and continue to play mediocre hockey, they could find themselves in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position as they try to overcome Sharp's injury.