If it’s not the Blackhawks’ line combinations, what is it?

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Chicago Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad scores past Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott as Shayne Gostisbehere watches during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

by Scott King

Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton made some interesting comments following an unsettling 4-1 loss at home vs. the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night.

“There’s a lot of talk about combinations, line combinations,” Colliton said following the Hawks’ third straight loss and final outing of a seven-game homestand where they went 2-3-2. “It’s not the combos.”

Chicago’s lines have looked like this the past few games:

Alex DeBrincat — Jonathan Toews — Andrew Shaw
Dylan Strome — Kirby Dach — Patrick Kane
Brandon Saad — David Kampf — Dominik Kubalik
Alexander Nylander — Ryan Carpenter — Drake Caggiula

“The lines that have success, they’re playing a very direct, hard-working team-oriented game and they’re willing to do the dirty work,” Colliton said. “They’re willing to get their nose dirty and pressure on the forecheck, back-pressure on the way back, no shortcuts in D-zone. Those are the lines that have had success. The lines that aren’t having success, they’re not having success because they’re not doing those things.”

It’s fairly clear who Colliton is addressing here. It’s no secret that the Hawks’ bottom six forwards have been their most reliable players so far this season.

Saad has far and away been the Hawks best player. He’s been generating scoring chance after scoring chance, especially early in games, and was finally rewarded again with a breakaway goal on Thursday after scoring in back-to-back games on Oct. 12 (vs. the Winnipeg Jets) and Oct. 14 (vs. the Edmonton Oilers).

The two-time Stanley Cup champ with the Hawks (2013, 2015) has been incredibly strong on the puck while displaying a solid two-way game. Colliton has utilized Saad and his line by putting them against other team’s top lines more and more, but why not spread the wealth?

Toews, who had a career-best 81 points last season, is off to a slow start with just two in the first eight games.

“Got to play with more energy, got to be harder on the puck,” Toews said of his game following Thursday’s morning skate. “Got to win some draws in the offensive zone, getting plenty of chances down there [where I’m] just losing draws and end up going back to [my] own end and playing there.

“A lot of little things [to improve]. Building some chemistry with my linemates and just get my game going.”

While the captain finds his way back, why not throw Saad and Kubalik up next to him on the top line? Like, Saad, Kubalik has been incredibly responsible defensively and has helped generate a lot of quality scoring chances. His two goals and one assist don’t do his contributions justice. The pair’s stellar play would have a great chance to spark Toews.

“It’s not the combos,” Colliton continued Thursday night. “I could get the Bingo balls out and with the players we have, I can throw any combos out there and they would work.

“If we had the work ethic away from the puck and we managed it and we played a winning style, team-first mentality up and down the lineup, they would work. Anything could work. You saw that in the third. We jumbled it up.

“It wasn’t the combos it was the work ethic. We dominated because we were skating, we were winning battles, we got pucks deep. That’s the recipe.”

Okay, fine. Colliton is asking for more from his top players, which he should be. Aside from Toews; DeBrincat and Strome both just have four points in eight games.

Kane could have more than three goals and five assists despite averaging a point a game. Like Toews, those three aren’t the offensive juggernauts they were last season yet either.

But… they played together last season. That was one of the best lines in the league all season.

Over his career, Shaw has shown he can slide up and down any lineup and be effective, as long as he’s not taking too many penalties.

If Dach, already with his first NHL goal and assist in three games, was to center the third or fourth line, he could hone his game with less pressure and be more effective against easier matchups.

Once Shaw and Dach are relocated, most of the bottom six forward group, which has been efficient and productive, would remain intact.

After a seven-game homestand was squandered following a season-opening loss to the Flyers in Prague (4-3), we’re not looking at a small sample size anymore. If the top players aren’t producing for whatever reason, they need to be with the ones who are. If only to get their games going again.

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