For hockey coaches, thinking the game never really stops. With the Blackhawks likely not to make many more changes, at least among the forwards, coach Joel Quenneville is already thinking about line combinations, especially with those top two lines.
“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”
Yeah, there are a few options, some of which changed after the Blackhawks re-acquired Sharp on July 1. How it all turns out come early October is still to be decided but players are ready to move up, down, to center or wing if necessary.
“I think about a lot of different possibilities with the Hawks lineup,” Sharp said at the Blackhawks convention on Friday. “Playing for Joel for as long as I have in the past, I know that combinations can get moved around quite a bit depending on the game, depending on the time of year and the way different guys are playing. That’s something I’m prepared for and something I’m looking forward to, as well. I had my best years playing for Coach Q, and I know wherever he puts me in the lineup is probably going to be best for me and for the team, as well.”
OK, but the possibility of playing with Kane again has to be enticing for Sharp, even if he doesn’t want to say so. Past chemistry, past success, for a team that’s still working in younger players and will look to avoid the constant line shuffling of the past two years, those things matter.
When Quenneville talked at the NHL Draft in late June, he said Schmaltz would likely get first crack at the second-line left-wing vacancy. But with Sharp’s return, coupled with no Dennis Rasmussen (not qualified) and no Marcus Kruger (traded to Vegas and then to Carolina), the Blackhawks may need Schmaltz more at center. Schmaltz liked the instant chemistry he had with Kane last season but that was at center, his more natural spot, and he’s fine going back there if necessary.
While the top line should stabilize with Saad’s return, the second line could be the one trying to figure things out at left wing this season. Artem Anisimov was “shocked and surprised” when Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June, but knows it’s a business and that adjustments will have to be made.
“I’m prepared for anything to come my way. I’ll try to work with anybody, coach Q puts on the left side,” he said. “We’ll work out what the best [combination] is going to be and the three of us will just go and play.”
“Every day you write down different combinations. You look at probability, the likelihood of who will be compatible with who,” Quenneville said. “So I think it will be fun trying to go through that process, not just on paper, but when you get them together and out there playing. We certainly have a lot of options up front.”