Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews will travel to St. Paul with his teammates for Thursday night's game against the Minnesota Wild, but he will not play. This will be the 21st consecutive game Toews has missed with a concussion.
No one knows for sure when (or if) Toews will return, but just for the sake of argument, let's assume he's ready to play when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week. Once Toews is back, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is going to have some tough choices to make with his line combinations.
Before Toews was injured, he was centering a line with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Obviously, major changes were necessary once the captain got hurt. Kane moved to center and has been playing on a line with Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette. Sharp has been playing with center Marcus Kruger and winger Viktor Stalberg in recent games.
Without question, the Sharp-Kruger-Stalberg line has been the most productive unit for the Hawks as of late. Sharp has scored in each of the last three games. He has seven goals in his last 10 games and now leads the team with 33 goals for the season. Stalberg has been playing his best hockey since he joined the Blackhawks, totaling five goals and five assists over his last 11 games.
You have to believe Quenneville would be loathe to break up that line. So, where does that leave Toews? Should Quenneville load up and put him with Kane and Hossa on the same line, as Jesse Rogers from ESPNChicago discussed a couple days ago?
Having those three guys on the ice at the same time is an intriguing possibiity, for sure. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's going to work. Hossa and Kane are both left-handed shots who prefer to play right wing. I'm not convinced either of them would be as effective moving over to left wing, even playing on the same line with Toews.
Hossa has never played left wing in his time with the Hawks. He's rather picky about where he plays and who he plays with, so I don't think I'd move him off right wing. Kane has played left wing at times, but has never been as effective there as he is on right wing. Much like Steve Larmer back in the day, Kane prefers to come off the right wing boards toward the center of the ice on his forehand. That's where he's most effective.
As exciting as a Kane-Toews-Hossa line might be on paper, I'd resist the temptation. I also would not break up the Sharp-Kruger-Stalberg trio. If you've got a good thing going, don't mess with it.
So what, should Quenneville do? Here's my suggestion:
Move Kane from center back to right wing and reunite him with Toews. Put Andrew Shaw on the top line as the left winger. The rookie has shown me he has enough skill and enough jam to play on an offensive line.
Keep Kruger's line together, then put Hossa on the "checking line" with center Dave Bolland and left wing Bryan Bickell.
I know it might sound crazy to put a world-class player like Hossa on what amounts to a third line, but Bolland's line sees plenty of ice time and often matches up with the other team's best players. In addition to being a top-flight scorer, Hossa is also a great defensive forward and won't be even slightly out of place playing on Bolland's line.
Remember the 2009 playoffs? The Blackhawks put the high-scoring Martin Havlat on a "checking line" with Bolland and left winger Andrew Ladd. That line helped the Hawks reach the conference finals that year by locking down the opponent's top players AND chipping in with some timely goals. It's not hard for me to envision a Bickell-Bolland-Hossa combination providing that same type of play for the Hawks this year.
On the fourth line, you use Brunette, Jamal Mayers and one of Jimmy Hayes, Michael Frolik and Brandon Bollig and take your chances.
To review, here are my suggested line combinations for the playoffs:
I think these combinations would provide the Hawks with three lines that can score. There's plenty of balance there. If you're the opponent, which line do you send your top checkers out against? It becomes a pick-your-poison situation.
Of course, all this is dependent on Toews' return. Until he's on the ice playing in a game, that remains a big 'if.' However, it will be interesting to see how Quenneville sets things up if indeed the captain returns to the lineup for the postseason.