Alex DeBrincat affirming superstar status on Blackhawks’ thriving 1st line

DeBrincat won’t acknowledge it himself, but he has ascended to the same tier as Patrick Kane — in part, by playing with him.

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Alex DeBrincat ranks eighth in the NHL in goals entering Friday.

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EDMONTON, Alberta — Alex DeBrincat still views fellow wing Patrick Kane as the Blackhawks’ best player, their superstar and the driver of their success.

During Wednesday’s game in Seattle, he fought Kraken forward Yanni Gourde in Kane’s defense.

“[He] went after Kane and cross-checked him,” DeBrincat said. “You go after our best player, I think we can’t let that happen.”

Kane, meanwhile, sees the obvious: DeBrincat has ascended to stardom himself.

“He’s just a special, special hockey player,” Kane said that same night. “He’s a superstar in the making. He’s already a superstar.”

The praise continued.

“He’s getting better every year,” Kane added. “All around the puck, his puck-handling [and] his playmaking is getting better. And then he’s able to step up like that, when he doesn’t like something that’s going on with his teammates, and able to fight like that. [He’s] pretty special.”

DeBrincat is tied for eighth in the NHL with nine goals (in 16 games) this season. Throw out his snakebitten 2019-20 season and that shouldn’t be surprising.

After all, DeBrincat finished third in the league last season with 32 goals (in 52 games). He tied for sixth in 2018-19 with 41 goals. Even in 2017-18, when he played fewer than 15 minutes per game, he finished third among rookies with 28 goals.

“He’s so good at finding open areas where he can get open and be able to get a shot off,” Kane said. “And his shot’s so good that he’s going to be able to score a lot of the time.”

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has learned that the hard way in practice.

“Seeing him in practice and having to stop him, he’s very deceiving,” Fleury said. “He can one-time pucks, he can shoot, he’s fast, and he can fight, too, right?”

Of course, DeBrincat becoming one of the NHL’s elite doesn’t knock Kane out of that tier. Even as the Hawks struggle to score regularly this season, Kane has been so productive — 17 points in 12 games — that he’s on track to finish with the highest points-per-game average of his career.

Interim coach Derek King also deserves immense credit for recognizing how exponentially dangerous DeBrincat and Kane can be together and identifying the center who best complements their styles.

His first real action was to create a new first line of DeBrincat at left wing, Kirby Dach at center and Kane at right, and the early results have been spectacular.

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Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane have thrived on the Blackhawks’ top line together.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

DeBrincat’s average ice time has increased from 19:46 in games coached by Jeremy Colliton this season to 22:47 in four games under King, during which time DeBrincat has tallied five points. Kane’s average ice time climbed from 20:25 under Colliton to 23:15 under King, with six points.

Kane’s spectacular rush and blind backhand pass to DeBrincat for a goal last Friday against the Coyotes — an assist-of-the-year candidate — earned each of them a point. That play alone exemplified their remarkable chemistry.

“Playing together for a while now, we know where each other’s going to be, for the most part,” DeBrincat said soon afterward. “I think he knew I was cocked over there. Anyways, I have my stick in the air most of the time in a game, so he usually finds me. It was nice to have that one.”

Earlier that day, Kane said the line with Dach and DeBrincat “could be one of the better lines in the league” — bold words from someone who has played with countless elite linemates and who follows the rest of the NHL religiously.

Dach hasn’t yet seen a boost in his own box-score stats — his assist Wednesday was his first point under King — but he has made a difference with powerful skating and zone-to-zone-to-zone puck movement.

“Playing with those two guys, it’s pretty easy,” Dach said. “[I’ve] got to drive the middle, create space for them, let them make their plays. But at the same time, [I need to] get in there, win puck battles.”

Said Kane: “[Kirby is] good both ways. He’s strong in battles with the puck. He’s a really good skater up the middle, so he pushes back the ‘D’ pretty well. And he’s still a pretty young player in the league, as far as games and experience. The best is yet to come from him, and hopefully we can pull it out of him.”

King said the line’s formation was a group effort among the coaching staff, which “hashed this out and made sure we’re all on the same page.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t an out-of-nowhere idea. Fans had been calling for Dach to center Kane and DeBrincat for weeks, ever since Colliton quickly abandoned using them together in the third game.

The first line’s dominance has been crucial to the Hawks’ four-game winning streak, especially with important secondary scorers Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik enduring droughts and with Brandon Hagel, who might return Saturday against the Oilers, missing time with a shoulder injury.

But DeBrincat said Tuesday he’s “not satisfied,” particularly with his defensive play. After Kane’s praise of his play-making growth Wednesday, he pointed out with a laugh that he still only has three assists this season.

Even if DeBrincat doesn’t see it himself, others do: He’s now the Hawks’ bonafide second superstar.

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