Top-line left wing still the missing piece for Blackhawks

Against one of the hottest teams in the league, a division rival that was on the verge of passing his Blackhawks for the top spot in the Western Conference, coach Joel Quenneville apparently didn’t think he had 12 forwards worthy of playing.

So he dressed seven defensemen Sunday against the Minnesota Wild and kept sending Patrick Kane over the boards again and again.

It almost worked. Kane was spectacular, but the Hawks squandered his two early goals and lost 3-2, falling out of first place for the first time since early November. The loss came on the heels of a humiliating 6-0 loss Friday to the Washington Capitals.

But the Hawks don’t panic, nor should they. They know April, May and June are when the games really matter, not January. And the Capitals and Wild have been cautionary tales about peaking too early in the past. The Capitals ran roughshod over the NHL last season on their way to the Presidents’ Trophy, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. And the Wild went on a 24-5-1 tear from late January to late March in 2015, only to get swept by the Hawks in the second round.

Jonathan Toews hasn't had a consistent left wing since the start of the 2015-16 season, and his production has suffered. (AP Photo)

So defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk sort of chuckled at the thought that the Hawks’ loss Friday was ‘‘demoralizing.’’ And while Kane deemed the disappointing weekend a ‘‘wake-up call,’’ he hardly seemed overwhelmed by it.

‘‘You play two of the better teams in the league and lose, there’s got to be room for improvement, right?’’ he said.

No, the sky isn’t falling after two mid-January losses. But it doesn’t exactly feel as though the sky is the limit for this Hawks team, either. It’s starting to look a lot like the 2015-16 squad — far too reliant on Kane’s line and great goaltending. Yes, the defense is deeper than it was last season, but the forwards are even thinner. Last season, it was Marian Hossa who couldn’t seem to find the back of the net. This season, it’s Jonathan Toews.

The solution is clear: The Hawks must acquire a top-six winger before the trade deadline Feb. 28. The domino effect would be massive. Suddenly, Toews (seven goals all season) and Hossa (no goals in nine games after his torrid start) would have the left winger they’ve been looking for since the start of last season.

And if the Hawks can fill that spot, Vinnie Hinostroza can bolster the bottom six, which desperately needs it. Add Hinostroza and the eventual return of injured Marcus Kruger to the mix, and the Hawks suddenly have four capable lines, with Andrew Desjardins and Jordin Tootoo (who have combined for zero goals and zero assists) as viable extras.

The Hawks have been sniffing around the trade market, but a source said they are hesitant to make a major move. They like the young players they have and want to see them flourish. And they’re hosting the draft and want to hoard picks, not deal them away. It’s almost unthinkable they will trade their first-round pick this year, as they did in 2015 to get Antoine Vermette and 2016 to get Andrew Ladd.

At the same time, though, they quietly have been banking cap space by keeping their roster at 21 players until recalling Nick Schmaltz on Saturday. Capfriendly.com says the Hawks will have more than $3.3 million of cap space available at the deadline. So if they are wiling to part with a roster player and can coax a team into eating some salary, maybe they can land the Toronto Maple Leafs’ James van Riemsdyk, the Colorado Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog or Matt Duchene or the Arizona Coyotes’ Martin Hanzal. They need to try.

The Hawks are very good, but they’re not great. They’re Stanley Cup contenders, but they’re not favorites. And they have too many defensemen and not enough forwards.

The solution isn’t simple, but it’s obvious: Find that top-line left winger and watch the pieces all fall into place.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com