Blackhawks relying on depth again

The Hawks have had a lot of players step up this season in their 15-game points streak. Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was asked recently if he could compare this year’s team, which is off to the best start in franchise history, and his Stanley Cup-winning team in 2009-10.

Quenneville wouldn’t bite on the question. He answered by saying the two teams were different in their respective ways, not wanting to set the bar too high just yet for this year’s team. But Quenneville was willing to admit the one similarity he found was with both teams he was comfortable putting any line out on the ice at any time.

The Blackhawks currently stand atop the NHL with a 12-0-3 record and are one game away from tying the league’s record of 16 consecutive games with a point to start a season. There are a multitude of reasons for their early success, and depth has been one of them.

A successful team is often driven by its stars, and the Blackhawks are no different. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have done their part this season, combining for 16 goals and 20 assists.

But the Blackhawks have also succeeded despite some inconsistencies from their top players. Marian Hossa has scored just two goals in the past 13 games and Patrick Sharp, the team's leading goal scorer the past two seasons, snapped a 10-game goalless drought on Sunday. Starting defenseman Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have often been among the team’s leaders in plus/minus rating, and they’re among the lower half this season.

Just as those star players have often picked up their teammates, it’s now their teammates picking them up. Blackhawks defensemen Johnny Oduya (plus-10) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (plus-8) have stepped up this season in the second defensive pairing. Defensemen Nick Leddy, Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival have contributed in various ways. Leddy has a power-play goal this year.

In net, backup Ray Emery hasn’t been a drop off from Corey Crawford. Emery is 5-0-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.

“It’s important,” Quenneville said last week of having two quality goaltenders. “Both guys have played well all year. Ray shows he wants to play and can play.”

The third line of Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell has produced seven goals between of the three of them. They have combined for a plus/minus rating of plus-6. The fourth line of Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and either Jamal Mayers or Brandon Bollig has added four goals and has a combined plus/minus rating of plus-9. Frolik, Kruger and Bollig were on the ice for Seabrook’s goal in the first period in Sunday’s win. Frolik, Kruger and Mayers were on the ice for two of the team’s four goals in Friday’s win.

“The last few games they’ve been producing,” Quenneville said of the fourth line on Sunday. “But they seem to have a lot of offensive zone time and offense shifts. They do the right thing and protect the puck and put it in the right and safe areas, and defensively how they check they get the puck a lot. It was a real nice night for them (Sunday) and it was a big goal to get us rolling.”

Kruger and Frolik have kept the fourth line competitive, but the duo has also shined on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks have excelled with a 89.1 penalty kill percentage partly because of them.

“They’re very useful on the penalty-kill units, and they really complement one another as well,” Quenneville said of Kruger and Frolik.

Toews said last week he thought this season’s depth resembled the to the 2009-10 team, which could depend on the likes of Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Hjalmarrson along with the core players.

“I think we’re back to the point where we can throw any line out there top to bottom against the other team’s top line,” Toews said. “We have confidence in each other that line can go out there and do the job. There’s kind of maybe a diffusion of responsibility where every single guy takes responsibility and takes ownership he can go out there and do the job whether it’s power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, checking or scoring.

“Everyone has a job and everyone can go out there and do that. There’s not really a reliance on one or two lines as you’ve seen. With the skill we have across this lineup, that makes us a dangerous team. With our goaltenders playing the way they’re playing, that’s a great thing. I think that’s what makes us a dangerous team is that we can rely on so many different guys to do things.”