One Improvement Each Line Must Make for the Chicago Blackhawks
After struggling to string wins together and put the puck in the net earlier in the year, the Blackhawks are now getting timely scoring from up and down their roster. As a result, they have climbed to the top of the Central Division—they leapfrogged the St. Louis Blues with the win over New Jersey—and the rest of the season looks promising if they can stay healthy.
But head coach Joel Quenneville knows that there are improvements to be made. He can look at each of his four lines and realize that the Blackhawks can play better and improve their chances of rising to the top in the Western Conference.
Quenneville is well-known for changing his line combinations frequently, oftentimes in the middle of a game. For the purposes of this story, we'll discuss the line combinations that have been used most frequently and can be assessed at dailyfaceoff.com.
All Corsi figures provided by BehindTheNet.ca.
Increased Scoring from Top Line
C Jonathan Toews, LW Brandon Saad, RW Marian Hossa
Through the majority of this season, Saad and Hossa were having a difficult time putting the puck in the net, and that contributed to the Blackhawks' early-season struggles. While neither one has completely turned it around, both players have shown signs of improvement.
As long as they are teamed with Jonathan Toews, they should continue to get opportunities to put the puck in the net and increase their scoring totals. Toews has scored 11 goals and 12 assists in 23 games, and he has a plus-seven rating along with a 21.77 Corsi-On percentage. He is shooting the puck frequently, and that's creating opportunities for him and his linemates.
Hossa scored two goals in the December 6 win at Nashville, but he has just five goals for the season. Saad has scored six goals, and both players have been frustrated by their inability to put the puck by opposing goaltenders. Hossa is connecting on just 5.6 percent of his shots, and that's well below the 12.6 shooting percentage he has maintained throughout his career.
If Saad and Hossa can get on hot streaks, the Blackhawks' No. 1 line should become one of the most dangerous units in the league.
More Consistency from Richards on the No. 2 Line
C Brad Richards, LW Kris Versteeg, RW Patrick Kane
Just as Toews is the most important player on the Blackhawks' No. 1 line, running mate Patrick Kane is the most explosive on the No. 2 line. Kane is the Blackhawks' leading scorer through the team's first 28 games with 12 goals, 14 assists and a plus-seven rating.
This line has also received a huge contribution from Versteeg, who is much healthier and more productive than he was after the Blackhawks reacquired him from Florida last year. Versteeg is the No. 3 scorer on the team with eight goals and 14 assists. Additionally, Versteeg is giving the Blackhawks a net-front presence, even though he checks in at 5'11" and 183 pounds.
Richards has scored six goals and 12 assists, but he has not been as consistent as his linemates. His performance was on the quiet side at the beginning of the year, but he started to turn it around shortly before the Blackhawks' six-game road trip in late November. He scored three goals and got two assists on that journey, but he has been held off the board in each of the last two games.
It may be difficult for Richards, 34, to produce at the same kind of level as has his linemates. However, if he can pick up his pace just a bit, the Blackhawks will have an ideal No. 2 line.
Return to Health by Sharp on the No. 3 Line
C Andrew Shaw, LW Bryan Bickell, RW Patrick Sharp
Patrick Sharp is not likely to remain on the third line for very long. He was the Blackhawks' leading scorer last year with 34 goals and 44 assists, and he is arguably their most consistent goal scorer.
After suffering a knee injury in early November in Montreal, per Scott King of the Chicago Tribune, he was sidelined until Tuesday night's game in New Jersey. It will most likely take him a week or longer before he is at his best.
Sharp has scored 10 points in 14 games, and he gets the advantage of playing with hard-working Andrew Shaw as his center. While Shaw is not the most physically gifted player, it may be difficult to find a harder-working player on the team. Shaw has scored 10 points in 25 games, and a 6.49 Corsi-On rating is not overly impressive, but he will take an elbow to the face in order to make a play.
Bryan Bickell scored his fourth goal of the season in the win at New Jersey, but his tendency to coast in the regular season before he turns it on in the playoffs has not changed so far this season. Bickell has just 11 points in 28 games, and while Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman would like to see this change, it probably won't.
The key for this line is for Sharp to find his legs, get back to speed and produce like an All-Star player once again.
Take Advantage of Chances by the Fourth Line
C Marcus Kruger, LW Dan Carcillo, RW Ben Smith
The No. 4 line is not about scoring. It's about giving the top three lines a break and not allowing the opponents to seize momentum when they are on the ice.
For most teams, the No. 4 line is comprised of prospects, rejects and defensive specialists. But high-level teams like the Blackhawks can also use their No. 4 line to take control of the game. A No. 4 line that can push the action in the opponent's defensive zone can demoralize opponents who can't dominate against that unit.
Kruger, Carcillo and Smith have been playing tough, hard-nosed hockey, and they have been making life very difficult for opponents. Kruger and Smith are grinders who can win the battles in the corner, while Carcillo is not afraid to mix it up and stand stand up for his teammates.
The only thing that this line can do better is take advantage of its scoring opportunities. Smith, in particular, has been frustrated by his lack of scoring success. He has netted two goals and one assist in 28 games, and his 5.6 shooting percentage has been painful for him. Kruger has been somewhat more productive with four goals and four assists, while Carcillo has contributed three goals and two assists in 18 games while averaging 8:27 of ice time per game.
A lack of scoring from the fourth line is not a serious issue, especially when Smith and Kruger's value as penalty-killers is taken into the equation. But it would be helpful if Smith could cash in on his scoring chances.