Blackhawks Matthew Highmore, Ryan Carpenter, David Kampf becoming inseparable fourth line
The trio has been a constant since the final weeks of the 2019-20 regular season, setting a responsible, defense-first tone for the rest of the Hawks’ forwards.
The Blackhawks’ Matthew Highmore was asked this week to describe his chemistry with Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf.
‘‘Automatic,’’ he said.
On the surface, Highmore, Carpenter and Kampf are an odd combination. None was drafted. Highmore, 24, spent seven years in Canadian juniors and the American Hockey League. Carpenter, who will be 30 on Jan. 18, is an NHL journeyman, having played for the Sharks and Golden Knights before the Hawks. Kampf, who will turn 26 on Tuesday, was an overage Czech import in 2017 who is entering his fourth season with the Hawks.
But the three have become practically inseparable linemates and friends, giving the Hawks a stable fourth line even while the top three are shuffled regularly.
‘‘We talk a lot about putting the next line in a better spot and doing the dirty work for the team, and those guys embody that,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘The line that comes after them typically is put in a pretty good position. It’s an example to other lines [that] if you do these little things, it helps the team to have success.’’
The players’ gritty, defense-first mindsets and hard-working personalities have meshed together well ever since Colliton united them in February.
The three spent the last seven games of the regular season together after teaming up sporadically earlier on. They finished with a strong 56.3% scoring-chance ratio in 53 minutes together.
They remained together in the playoffs with more mixed results. Their 40.4% scoring-chance ratio in 63 postseason minutes together looked ugly, but the Hawks’ advanced stats were poor across the board, thanks to the series against the Golden Knights.
‘‘Both those guys, they work so hard, they skate so well [and] they’re strong on the puck,’’ Carpenter said of Highmore and Kampf. ‘‘The more we talk and communicate, you can start to play smarter — not just working hard, but working smarter. [We] try to get open for each other and talk, so we can anticipate where we want to go with the puck and the decisions we want to make.’’
From the opening drills of training camp Monday, Highmore, Carpenter and Kampf were reunited on the same line. They and the first line of Dylan Strome, Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat have been the only constants through the week, with forwards such as Andrew Shaw, Lucas Wallmark, Pius Suter and Brandon Pirri jumping around among the second, third and reserve lines.
‘‘[We’re] very familiar,’’ Highmore said. ‘‘It’s been kind of automatic coming back and understanding the phrases, talking on and off the ice. We’re all good friends, too, which makes it a lot easier. It’s always fun to play with your buddy. It just comes natural. Obviously, we have some stuff to work on, but so far, so good.’’
Highmore said he hopes to contribute more offensively in 2021 — at least enough to equal the production of his linemates. He had only six points in 36 regular-season games last season, whereas Carpenter had 15 in 69 games and Kampf 16 in 70 games.
‘‘I really worked hard in the offseason on protecting the puck down low,’’ Highmore said. ‘‘In the bubble, especially, our line had a lot of time down low, protecting [the puck] and keeping it away, and I want to build on that because I feel we can wear teams down and create from there. That was an emphasis for me to identify where a defensive player’s stick is and then take advantage of it.’’
But the line’s defensive attentiveness remains its strength, and that identity won’t change as long as the three stay together.
‘‘The more we talk, we know it’s defense first for us,’’ Carpenter said. ‘‘It’s playing the right way, playing a team game first, and we know the offense will come through hard work and doing the right things. All three of us are on the same page.’’