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."