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Blackhawks still searching for that elusive top-line left wing

Nick Schmaltz is one of several players who've had a turn on Jonathan Toews' (right) line so far this season. (AP Photo)

CALGARY, Alberta — Patrick Kane always says that playing with Jonathan Toews is “easy.” Toews is so good at every aspect of the game, so strong on the puck, and so detail-oriented that, as a linemate, you almost have to resist the urge to provide puck support — because he’s going to come out with it, and he’s going to find you.

“He’s one of the best players in the game,” Kane said. “And probably, in my mind, the easiest player to play with.”

Of course, Kane is a world-class player who can not only keep up with Toews, but improvise on the fly with him and create scoring chances out of nothing with him. The trick has been finding a left wing that can do the same. And after more than a year of searching, the Hawks still haven’t found one.

Since the start of last season, Toews has played at least a game or two with a staggering 12 left wings. Through the first 17 games this season, Toews has had six. The latest guy to get a crack at the most coveted — and most available — spot in the Blackhawks lineup was Vinnie Hinostroza, a diminutive but speedy rookie. This after Richard Panik, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman all got a spin.

Kane knows all about what Toews is dealing with. Last season was an anomaly for Kane, as he basically had one set of linemates all season — Panarin and Artem Anisimov. But in the three seasons before that, Kane had a whopping 15 different linemates, including 10 different centers.

Kane always downplayed the constant changes, but obviously benefitted last year from consistent chemistry.

“I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “Whatever’s best for the team is where I’ll play. But yeah, I’ve kind of gone through it in the past, where I played with different centers, different wingers. Every now and then you get a shift with, like, [Marcus Kruger] or the fourth line, and it’s fun to go out there with them, too, because they work so hard, get pucks back, and you find yourself with a lot of time and space. … [This year], it’s kind of been a new player every game, or every other game. For [Toews and me], we’ll try to stick with someone. If not, you know what everyone’s strengths are on the ice. Everyone wants to play the same way — fast, get pucks back, try to create some scoring chances, get to the net. Whoever’s out there with us, it doesn’t really matter. Just try to play the same way and hopefully, we’ll create a spark.”

While the idea of playing with Toews and Kane seems great, the challenge is even greater. Besides having to consistently play at the pace of two of the league’s top players, you’ll invariably face the opposing team’s top defensive pairing, while often drawing the opposing team’s top offensive line. That’s because Toews is not only the Hawks’ top-line center, he’s also their best shutdown center. He rarely gets an easy matchup.

And so far, Joel Quenneville has not found a guy who can handle all that on a nightly basis.

“It’s a good challenge,” Quenneville said. “We’ve been trying different guys and we feel somebody’s going to grab it one of these days.”

The revolving door has been spinning constantly. A week ago, Hinostroza was a healthy scratch for the eighth time in 10 games. Tuesday night, he was on a line with two future Hall of Famers. Meanwhile, a week ago, Hartman was all the rage and on the top line. Tuesday night, he was scratched.

Hinostroza, who left Tuesday’s game late in the first period after a Josh Morrissey check knocked his head into the boards, said the key to playing with Toews and Kane is to constantly work to get the puck back at any costs. And, surprisingly enough, to be a little selfish.

“At first, you don’t want to upset them by not passing the puck,” said Hinostroza, whom Quenneville said should be OK after the big hit. “But it’s not selfish to shoot. They can get rebounds and score goals that way. You have to play your game, and not change things too much. They’re both great players, everyone knows that. So just work as hard as you can, get the puck back, give it to one of them, and get open.”

Toews acknowledged that consistency is always preferred to constant line-tinkering. But Quenneville’s machinations haven’t really hurt him. Since being reunited with Kane for the first time in years 10 games ago, Toews and Kane have four goals and six assists each. And Toews said it’s up to him to find the right guy, and make him stick.

“I always have to look at myself in ways that I can be better,” he said. “When you play well as a line, eventually you’ll earn that right to stay together and have that consistency. Then, in that case, it’s something you build on.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus