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Artem Anisimov’s downgrade an upgrade for Blackhawks

The last time Patrick Sharp was a third-liner in Chicago, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Of course, that was a third line in name only, as Sharp, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen all were top-six talents playing bottom-six roles during the Hawks’ championship run in 2015.

So while a younger Sharp may have taken issue with being shunted down the lineup a bit, this older, wiser Sharp knows that depth is the key to success in the NHL.

“It’s not a slap in the face to be moved around the lineup — sometimes that’s a compliment,” Sharp said. “[Joel Quenneville is] always trying to create balance and put the best lineup out there with a chance to win. So personally speaking, I don’t care where I play. I know Joel’s going to put me in a spot for me to be at my best in order to help the team.”

The same goes for Artem Anisimov, who not only lost his best friend on the team in Artemi Panarin but lost his job as Patrick Kane’s center thanks to the meteoric rise of Nick Schmaltz. But Anisimov’s demotion in the lineup is a significant upgrade for the Hawks as a whole. Relative to other No. 2 centers around the league, Anisimov is a good, solid player. Relative to other No. 3 centers, he’s outstanding.

Artem Anisimov pressures Pittsburgh's Carl Hagelin during Thursday's season-opener. (Getty Images)

And while the top two lines have had most of the fun in two season-opening blowout victories, the third unit of Sharp, Anisimov and rookie Alex DeBrincat could be a difference-maker for the Hawks.

“As a third-line center, he’s really dangerous,” said Ryan Hartman, who spent nearly all of training camp on Anisimov’s line until seizing the second-line left-wing spot for the opener. “Obviously, you’ve seen the success he had on the second line and the amount of producing that he’s been able to do the past few years and throughout his career. Having a guy like that as a third-line center [is huge]. He’s very responsible defensively, he knows where to be, he has a quick transition, he has a really good knack for the game, he’s on the back pressure, and when he gets the puck, he’s moving straight up the ice and knows exactly what he wants to do with it.”

One might think Anisimov would be miffed at the downgrade. After all, he got to center two top-10 scorers in Kane and Panarin the last two seasons, and he was wildly successful doing it. He even matched his career high in goals with 22 last season. But if anything, Anisimov feels freed up now. Kane and Panarin are offensive wonders, but Anisimov’s defensive responsibilities were vast while those two toyed with opponents in the offensive zone.

Sharp, on the other hand, is more of a 200-foot player, providing far more support in the defensive end than Kane or Panarin did. Sharp called Anisimov “really easy to play with” because of all the little things he does well. Anisimov said the same thing about Sharp.

“He’s different, he’s totally different,” Anisimov said. “But he has so much skill, too. …. It’s so much more helpful playing with him. I don’t need to worry so much about defense; I can go offensively more right now, because I have Sharpie. It’s nice to have it on the line.”

The importance of that depth down the middle will be underscored for the next two or three games, as Schmaltz is nursing an upper-body injury suffered Saturday night against Columbus. The Hawks have only four true centers on the roster — Jonathan Toews, Schmaltz, Anisimov and Tanner Kero. Tommy Wingels and Hartman also can play some center, but both are better suited to the wings.

So while Anisimov might get a temporary promotion during Schmaltz’s absence, he knows that he — and the Hawks — are best served with him at No. 3.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Anisimov said. “If it’s best for the team, it’s good for me, too.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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