Jonathan Toews has had the best seat in the house to watch Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane toy with opponents over the past three games, racking up a combined seven goals and 10 assists in an emphatic reminder that the trio might just comprise the best line in hockey.
“They make it look easy,” Toews said. “When they get one or two, look out. They’re not stopping there. That’s when they’re just starting to feel it. It’s fun to watch.”
It’s fun to be on that line, too. Toews knows. Just a couple of years ago, he, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa formed arguably the most potent line in the league, skating circles around opponents, owning the puck, and setting up camp in the offensive zone. And when Brandon Saad was up there instead of Sharp, the line was just as dangerous.
But since last summer, when Saad was sent to Columbus and Sharp was shipped to Dallas, Toews has had an eclectic crew of wingers on his left, and now a new winger on his right. In a desperate and seemingly never-ending quest to find the right mix for his No. 1 center, Joel Quenneville has thrown anyone and everyone on the top line — from Marko Dano to Viktor Tikhonov to Ryan Garbutt to Teuvo Teravainen to Bryan Bickell to Andrew Shaw to Panarin to Vinnie Hinostroza to his latest left wing, rookie Tyler Motte. On his right, Toews now has Richard Panik —red-hot at the moment with a league-leading six goals through six games on just nine shots on goal — while Quenneville experiments with a new, more defensive-minded role for Hossa.
Through it all, Toews has remained one of the game’s top two-way centers. He still commands a shut-down line as well as anybody in the league, and he still managed to pot 28 goals last season despite his motley crew of wingers. But after years of Kane going through linemates like laundry, now it’s Toews who’s in search of chemistry and consistency.
“It’s huge,” Toews said. “You only get better and better when you start really understanding and really knowing everything [about your linemates]. It just becomes feel. … Sometimes you just have to go out there and let things happen, and use your instincts. That really kicks in with guys that you play with for a long time.”
Through six games this season, Toews has no goals and two assists. But the latest incarnation of the Hawks’ top line — as unstoppable as the Anisimov line has been, whichever line has Toews in the middle has always been designated the Hawks’ “top line” —has been quite effective. Motte has scored with his two new linemates in each of the two games. And four of Panik’s goals have come with Toews on the ice.
Toews and Panik developed a nice rapport during the playoffs last spring, and it has carried over to the new season. The knock on Panik always has been his inconsistency, however, so he’ll need to prove the start isn’t a fluke before he’s permanently entrenched as a top-liner.
So far, Toews like what he’s seen.
“He has all the tools,” Toews said. “He can skate, he can hit, he can shoot. [Last week] when he scored three goals [against Nashville], he wasn’t just scoring — he was skating well, he was running guys over, he was using his body, he was creating space. All those things that are tough to do every single night. The biggest thing we’ve seen is that consistent focus, and that ability to deliver that. If he can bring that type of performance every night, then look out. He’s going to be one of the best in the league. He’s got that raw ability, for sure.”
Of course, the left wing has been the bugaboo on that line. Motte doesn’t quite have the speed of a Sharp or a Saad, but he’s a sturdy body, strong on the puck, and plays the 200-foot game you have to in order to keep up with Toews. Saad said on Friday that the key to playing with Toews is to work as hard as he does.
“The way he works and the way he competes, I think [the ideal left wing] is just someone to match that,” Saad said. “They’ve tried a lot of different things, but the biggest thing is he’s got so much skill and so much competitive nature, you just try to match that intensity, and he’s going to find you. So find the open spots and try to read off of him.”
To that end, Toews has been in Motte’s ear, offering advice and constructive criticism after nearly every shift.
“When we get back to the bench, he’ll grab me and keep the communication flowing,” Motte said. “That’s how you build confidence, that’s how you build chemistry. You learn off each other and keep building off what we’ve done to this point. Know that you can always be better.”
Given how many different wingers Toews has gone through over the last 13 months, it’d be foolish to cement Motte-Toews-Panik as the Hawks’ new top line after just two solid games. Motte’s just a rookie, and has much to learn. Panik’s still something of a novelty, and has much to prove. In the meantime, Toews will keep working, keep talking, and keep trying to build something with whoever Quenneville puts on his line, so that he can have the kind of consistency and chemistry Kane has now, and that Toews himself had for so long.
“When you play well as a line, eventually you’ll earn that right to stay together and have that consistency,” Toews said. “Then you can build on it.”