Blackhawks

Why Saad-Schmaltz-Kane line has potential to be one of NHL's best

Why Saad-Schmaltz-Kane line has potential to be one of NHL's best

Patrick Kane has played with Nick Schmaltz for two seasons now. They've been on the same wavelength since the start but didn't truly flourish together until last season. It should only strengthen in Year 3 with Kane still playing like he's in his prime and Schmaltz just entering it.

But there's a new piece added to the line combination puzzle.

Brandon Saad skated with Kane and Schmaltz to open training camp on Friday and did so again during Saturday's training camp festival scrimmage at the United Center. Kane could hardly contain his excitement about the likelihood of playing with Saad and Schmaltz to start the year.

"Oh, very excited about it," Kane admitted.

But will it work?

The three of them were on the ice together for 125:53 minutes of 5-on-5 time last season and actually had below average puck possession numbers, controlling 49.38 percent of the shot attempts. As a team the Blackhawks were ranked fourth at 52.3 percent.

They were, surprisingly, one of the least productive lines the Blackhawks had despite having a Zone Start Ratio — the percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts — of 76.39 percent, according to corsica.hockey. Perhaps more time together on a consistent basis and through practice reps could help turn those numbers around rather than turning to it in desperate times from game-to-game.

"From skating with [Saad] this summer and seeing where his game is at, I think he's going to have a really big year," Kane said. "Schmaltz is a guy for me to develop that chemistry with and develop the east-west game, look for each other for one-timers, things like that."

Saad certainly adds a different dimension to the line. He's more of a north-south player while Kane and Schmaltz like to create by also playing east-west. The only challenge they may face is that Saad isn't that type of player to create on his own and Schmaltz plays center, unlike Artemi Panarin, whom Kane developed great chemistry with for two years playing opposite each other's wings. It'd be difficult for Kane and Schmaltz to create using only one side of the ice.

But Schmaltz doesn't see that being an issue once they get into the offensive zone because that's where they really do their creating. Plus, he and Kane are two of the best at carrying the puck through the neutral zone and offensive zone entries in general, so it works out great in that aspect.

"I think off the rush I'm more of a speed through the middle, back off the D-man and then he can kind of do his thing, whether it's pull up, find the late D or slide it through the middle to me," Schmaltz said after Saturday's scrimmage. "I think once we get in the zone that's when we really start moving. I thought we had a couple good shifts out there where we were moving, cycling, setting picks for each other and creating space. That's more of our style where we're rolling, we're finding each other, we're kind of just moving all over the place trying to screw up the defense."

This allows Saad to play more of an Artem Anisimov-type role in the offensive end, where he can provide net-front presence and allow Kane and Schmaltz to feed off each other, rather than playing more of a wing role. 

If that happens and they can put it all together, it has the potential to be a dangerous line both offensively and defensively.

"They all have different ingredients," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I looked at [Kane], boy, every year I always find he gets a little bit better and today on the ice he jumped out to me as far as how efficient he was, quickness. He finds a way to enhance a pretty special game. With them, [Saad] has some quickness, some speed, he’s around the net. Schmaltz has some real quickness off the rush.

"They all do some neat things off the puck. Upside, offensively, may be as exciting as maybe any in the league. I think the defensive part of it will determine, if they play that well they’ll be excellent offensively because they’ll have the puck a lot. They’re all capable of doing that on the defensive side, but I’m sure they’re excited to play with one another. We look forward that these guys can help our team on both sides."

Kirby Dach emerging as impact-type player for Blackhawks

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AP

Kirby Dach emerging as impact-type player for Blackhawks

One of the top storylines going into Blackhawks training camp this season was whether Kirby Dach would be ready to make the jump to the NHL full-time. It was a goal of his, too, ever since he got drafted third overall in June.

But after exiting early in the final game of the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Dach was placed in concussion protocol at the start of camp and didn't appear in any preseason games for the Blackhawks. It was a challenge to stay positive throughout the recovery process, but Dach knew he would eventually get his chance.

And he's taken full advantage of it.

Dach made his NHL debut on Oct. 20 against the Washington Capitals and was lined up against Alex Ovechkin's line for the majority of the game, logging 13:41 of ice time as the second-line center. He scored his first career NHL goal two days later and registered an assist in his third game. Things were off to a great start.

But now Dach is starting to get more comfortable in the pros and his offense is coming more naturally.

"I’m starting to play good," Dach said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself and the team is playing good so I think that kind of helps out with individual success. When your team is going the right way and you’re winning games and scoring goals and your top players are producing — not saying I’m a top player or anything — but it helps a lot when everybody is going and we’re scoring."

After having only one point in his previous seven games, Dach has four goals and two assists in a four-game point streak. He scored twice in Sunday's 4-1 win over Vegas and joined Eddie Olczyk and Patrick Kane as the only 18-year-olds in franchise history to have a multi-goal game.

"He’s getting confident and he’s playing well," Kane said. "I think the biggest thing with him is he can skate with the puck and he can lug it up the ice. When you do that and you can drive the middle of the rink, there are going to be some opportunities for you and your linemates. You saw on both of his goals tonight, he drives to the middle, gets a pass and all of a sudden he’s in free. So that could be a big part of his game going forward but he’s really starting to feel some confidence."

Dach is up to nine points in 14 games this season, and his points-per-game average of 0.64 ranks fifth among all rookies. Only Cale Makar (1.10), Quinn Hughes (0.70), Martin Necas (0.70) and Victor Olofsson (0.70 rank ahead of him, but Dach is averaging the fewest amount of ice time (11:13) by a significant margin and is the only one on the list from the 2019 draft class.

"He's a tremendous talent," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "For him to step in as he has, he missed basically all of training camp and he's been a factor for us. He's helping us win. Got a lot of fun times ahead of us watching him develop and he's going to be a big-time player for us."

The biggest challenge for teenagers that break into the NHL right away is about staying true to who they are as a player. Most times, young players simply try to survive, and they get away from doing what they do best.

Dach isn’t showing any signs of timidness. He knows he can play at this level and wants to be an impact-type player in Chicago for a long time. 

And while he’s currently in a bottom-six role, expect Dach’s ice time to increase as he continues to prove himself as a high-end player. Because he can handle it.

"I feel kind of comfortable wherever I’m suited in the lineup," Dach said. "I just want to be in the lineup. I know whenever I step on the ice I have to be at my best to stay in the lineup and produce offensively, but at the same time make sure I’m good in my own zone and throughout the neutral zone. The one thing I’ve learned here is to have a good overall game and be a good 200-foot player."

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Four takeaways: Kirby Dach lifts Blackhawks to fourth straight win

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AP

Four takeaways: Kirby Dach lifts Blackhawks to fourth straight win

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks keep rolling

The Blackhawks were coming off their biggest win of the season, a 7-2 rout against the Predators just 24 hours ago in Nashville. And they followed that up with a strong 60-minute effort against the Sabres, who started out the season 8-1-1 but are since 1-6-2.

The Blackhawks have scored the first two goals in five of the past six games, and 21 goals during their four-game winning streak. They also improved to 4-0-0 on the second leg of a back-to-back this season.

"It’s nice to get on a little bit of a run here," Patrick Kane said. "It’s something we’ve been waiting for all season. We play pretty well in these back-to-backs so nice to put a little stretch together and feel good about our game. Obviously we’re getting production from all over the lineup right now and I think that’s key if you’re going to go on some winning stretches."

2. Corey Crawford stays hot

The Blackhawks are getting elite goaltending from Crawford and Lehner this season, especially as of late. Crawford came into the matchup with a 10-0-0 record, 2.04 goals-against average and .924 save percentage against the Sabres.

He improved those numbers on Sunday, turning aside 33 of 34 shots for a save percentage of .971. He is now 3-0-2 in his past five starts after starting the season 1-4-0.

"I thought we played great defensively," Crawford said. "Even after playing last night, we really didn’t give up that much, I thought. And then got a lot more goals, too. That seems to be rolling for us right now."

3. Kirby Dach extends point streak

After recording only one point in his previous seven games, the Blackhawks' top prospect is starting to heat up. He scored twice on Sunday night to tally his fourth goal in as many games and fifth of his NHL career. He also finished with four shots on goal.

With the goal, Dach extended his career-high point streak to four games. He has four goals and two assists over that span, and is up to nine points (five goals, four assists) in 14 games on the season.

Dach is the third 18-year-old in Blackhawks history to record a multi-goal game (regular season or playoffs), joining Eddie Olczyk (two goals vs. Detroit on April 10, 1985) and Patrick Kane (two goals vs. Columbus on Oct. 23, 2007). And he really tried completing the hat trick on his final shift with the help of Kane."

“I obviously wanted it pretty bad," Dach said. "Kaner gave me a couple of nice chances and I might owe him a steak dinner for missing those ones.”

4. Henri Jokiharju returns to Chicago

For the first time since being traded to the Sabres, Jokiharju returned to the United Center and did so as a member of the visitors. In fact, on his way into the arena he briefly got lost trying to find the changing room.

The Jokiharju trade was a controversial one because he was one of the Blackhawks' best defensemen last season, especially at the beginning of the season, and was traded for Alex Nylander, who was viewed as a reclamation project.

Jokiharju led the Blackhawks in even-strength ice time in his first 15 games under Joel Quenneville. But after the coaching change, Jokiharju's ice time averaged slipped and he was eventually sent to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.

"I think it's a little bit how the coach see you as a player and as a person," Jokiharju said. "I think that was one of the issues in here."

Whether that's true or not, both teams seem to be benefitting from the trade so far. Jokiharju has seven points (two goals, five assists) in 19 games with the Sabres. Nylander has nine points (four goals, five assists) in 18 games.

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