Take out the Oilers’ duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and Blackhawks wing Patrick Kane would be the NHL’s leading scorer.
Despite passing his 32nd birthday and missing longtime partner-in-offense Jonathan Toews, Kane is enjoying yet another terrific season in 2021.
And that’s largely because he’s developing strong connections with wing Alex DeBrincat and center Pius Suter.
The Hawks used that combination occasionally through the first month of the season, especially on the power play, but Philipp Kurashev and Mattias Janmark also spent time next to Kane.
Starting Thursday against the Blue Jackets, however, coach Jeremy Colliton united DeBrincat, Suter and Kane permanently. He was rewarded instantly.
‘‘They always have chemistry,’’ Colliton said Saturday. ‘‘They know how to find each other. Suter’s been a really nice fit with them. Before we lost [DeBrincat] there for a week or so, they had a couple of excellent games against Detroit. Felt like it’d be something we could go back to.’’
‘‘Suter’s just getting better and starting to familiarize himself with the NHL game,’’ Kane said Thursday. ‘‘He wins pucks back. He’s driving the net really well and creating space for his linemates. DeBrincat’s been great pretty much all year. I still think there’s more there.’’
Kane’s 22 points (seven goals, team-high 15 assists) in 16 games put him on the highest points-per-game pace of his 14-year career. Although he’s unlikely to keep this up through May, he nonetheless is proving he remains among the elite playmakers in hockey. Entering action Sunday, he was the highest scorer on any U.S. team by four points.
DeBrincat boasts a team-high eight goals and eight assists for 16 points in only 12 games. After his snakebitten 2019-20 season, in which his shooting percentage fell to 8.7%, he’s now back above 18%, just like he was in 2018-19. His defense has improved greatly since then, too.
Suter, meanwhile, leads all rookies with six goals and quickly has adjusted to the smaller North American rinks after his time in Switzerland.
In 91 even-strength minutes together, DeBrincat, Suter and Kane have outshot opponents 53-34 and outscored them 6-3. Their shot-attempt ratio is 59.5% and their scoring-chance ratio 58.7%, rates so good they’re nearly off the charts.
The presence of Suter helps drive possession for the other two. Kane and DeBrincat without Suter have outscored opponents 7-3 but have only a 46.4% scoring-chance ratio.
But Kane and DeBrincat are the dangerous weapons of this line. Their growing comfort together has helped them work well in tandem this winter.
‘‘Kaner’s easy to play with because he makes so many plays,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘He’s so clean, he rarely turns the puck over, he does a lot of things. . . . But he’s also hard to play with because he demands the puck and there’s a high level of expectation that you’re going to execute because he can.
‘‘[Alex is] used to it now. He knows what he needs to do to be successful. The best thing he can do is be willing to carry the puck, take more responsibility, not always defer.’’
DeBrincat agreed with that assessment recently.
‘‘I was definitely one of the guys who struggled with [deferring to Kane] at the start,’’ he said. ‘‘This year I’m able to find the open spots for him, and I’m figuring out the areas that he likes to look to pass to. So it’s a lot easier.’’
A red-hot first line makes a huge difference for the rest of the team. The Hawks’ winningest stretch last season came when Toews, Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Saad were dominant, and that was no coincidence.
The Hawks have found the same thing in Kane, DeBrincat and Suter.