As we gear up for Game 1 of the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks, it’s time to dive into our yearly playoff preview series. This is where we go position by position, examining what the Preds will have to face in this series.
Today we look at probably the most dangerous group of the Blackhawks: the forwards.
The Kane/Panarin Factor
The key to the Chicago’s offense is undoubtedly Patrick Kane. The reigning Hart and Art Ross trophy winner looked like he might go back-to-back, but now those trophies belong to (or should belong to) Connor McDavid. Regardless, Kane is the beginning and ending of almost every Blackhawks attack.
Kane’s 89 points is 2nd in the league to McDavid and tied with Sidney Crosby. His modest 34 goal total is still top 10 in the league. His 55 assists are matched only by McDavid and Nicklas Backstrom. He led all forwards in ice time per game and in total ice time.
Let’s face it. When you have a world-class, league MVP player on your team, everyone else’s job gets a little easier. Including last year’s Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin.
Panarin has been Kane’s linemate for two seasons now and in that span has 151 points in 162 NHL games. That’s an insane point per game rate for a guy playing his first two years in the league. In last year’s playoff series against the Blues, Panarin had seven points (2 goals, 5 assists) in seven games.
Formerly of the KHL, Panarin provides a level of speed and skill that I’m not sure Kane has ever had before. Panarin is extremely creative in the offensive end of the ice (much like Kane) and has the ability to create scoring opportunities where there seem to be none. His smaller size and speed are his most dangerous assets, along with his puck-handling ability. And he can shoot.
Say what you will about who is benefiting who when it comes to Kane and Panarin, these two have been an elite scoring duo whenever they’ve been on the ice. And they’ve been on the ice a lot—almost 2,000 5v5 minutes over the last two seasons.
Since they’ve been paired together, Kane and Panarin have combined for just over three goals per hour. When I ran these numbers, I knew they would be high... but three goals per hour? That’s insane. Most good teams sit comfortably in the 2.50-2.60 range.
As you’d expect, their individual rates when not skating together are not nearly that high, but they aren’t likely to be split up anytime soon, so that doesn’t matter.
Kane is definitely the most important Blackhawk on the team. With Panarin as his linemate, these two are definitely the most worrisome scoring threat the Preds will have to deal with.
Toews Isn’t Declining
There was a narrative earlier this season that Jonathan Toews was on the decline. I’m not sure how seriously this narrative was taken, but it was definitely there.
Now, the one thing I disagree with is that there’s *nothing* wrong with Toews. The worrisome trend is quite clear. pic.twitter.com/kokE5GXFcy— Second City Hockey (@2ndCityHockey) December 21, 2016
Fairly convincing, but 25 games into the season is early to push the panic button. Heck, Filip Forsberg still only had two goals by the time he played his 25th game this year. A lot can happen over the course of a season.
Here’s what that trend looks like now.
Still not close to his point per game pace back in 2013 (a lockout shortened season, mind you), but Toews is still right there at his career average. He rebounded from that “worrisome trend” earlier in the year just fine. In the 2017 calendar year, Toews has 40 points in 42 games.
His points per game doesn’t change in the playoffs either. In 124 career playoff games, Toews has 108 points. Right at his career average.
Anyway, it’s not like points are the only thing Toews is known for. A three-time Selke finalist, Toews won the trophy for best defensive forward back in 2013, the same year the Blackhawks won their second Cup in this recent run. He is perennially known for being one of the toughest defensive forwards to play against. He battles as hard as anyone in the league and is extremely tough to knock off the puck. He’s not huge, but at 6’2” he’s got decent size for a forward.
So don’t believe the lies. Toews is probably just as good as he always as been and even if he is slightly less effective, that’s still better than 90% of players out there.
Top Heavy? Not Even Close
Ok, so Kane, Panarin, and Toews are going to put up points. If this series goes to seven games, you can pretty much count on those guys combining for 10-15 points minimum.
The problem with the Blackhawks is that they have other guys that can beat you as well. Here are some highlights.
- 38 year old Marian Hossa, who is too old to play hockey, just finished a 26 goal campaign. He doubled his goal total from the previous season, when he was also too old to play hockey. The age narrative isn’t working, y’all.
- Richard Panik just put up a career high 44 points (22 goals, 22 assists). Turns out playing next to Jonathan Toews is all it takes.
- Artemi Anisimov, who will play in Game 1, is healthy and should be on the Kane-Panarin line. Because it needed to be improved. Anisimov scored 22 goals in 64 games and shot 21.0%.
The Blackhawks are 9th in the league in scoring at 2.93 goals per game. You don’t become a top 10 scoring team on the backs of three players. The Hawks finished with six 20 goal scorers and were one goal away from having seven.
A Versatile Bottom Six
With Hossa as the veteran leader of the group, the Blackhawks have a solid team of young forwards who make up their bottom six. Most of these guys are under 26 years old, though they play like more seasoned veterans.
Tanner Kero has recently emerged as an undersized center who can score. He has some playmaking ability and reads the game well. Watching him, he reminded me of Calle Jarnkrok. He only has 16 points on the year, but he’s been hot recently.
Ryan Hartman has had the most successful season of the bottom six group (outside of Hossa) with 19 goals to go with 12 assists. He is a grinder who can get to the front of the net with consistency. He’s also got a sneaky shot. Works well with Marcus Kruger and Hossa.
Nick Schmaltz is the most versatile forward of the group. A two-way forward prospect, he’s played on the Toews line, the Kane line, and almost everywhere else. He battled an injury earlier in the season, but still put up 28 points. He’s consistently good defensively and has great playmaking skills. I threw him in with the bottom six group, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Schmaltz play wing anywhere in this lineup.
Finally, there are some other new faces that could make an appearance. John Hayden made his NHL debut the other day and scored in his second appearance. Tomas Jurco, a late trade acquisition from the Red Wings, could step in if needed. Denis Rasmussen, the odd man out with the arrival of Hayden and Jurco, has played in 68 games this year, though he hasn’t done much.
Then there’s our old pal Jordin Tootoo, who has averaged just under seven minutes a game in 50 games. Yeah, I doubt we see Tootoo in the playoffs. (see: No Fighting In The Playoffs by Almost Every Cup Winner Ever)
Weaknesses: Where Are They?
Beats the hell out of me.
I guess maybe the bottom six, but they still have some guys that can beat you. Hartman is the main worry, but Kero has been coming on strong. And as long as Hossa is out there, you can never be too careful.
Without too much reservation, I think there really are no weaknesses to expose in this forward group. They are too good, too balanced, and too experienced. If the Predators have any shot at winning this series, they will just have to match this Hawks attack blow for blow.