CHICAGO — It was a blast to score five third-period goals in Nashville, and compelling to watch Mikko Koskinen and Alex Chiasson pilfer two points in Dallas. But let’s face it — when you’re talking about hockey’s grand stages, neither of those barns can hold a candle to an Original Six team in the majestic United Center.
It is here in the Windy City where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane resurrected a sleepy hockey town, making it one of the hockey’s premier destinations. Only in Chicago does Jim Cornelison blast out a Star Spangled Banner that shoots 40 players out of a cannon to start the game.
On Thursday night, The Greatest Show in the National Hockey League — league-leading scorers Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid — raises its circus tent off Madison Ave., a 2020s version of Toews and Kane that the hockey world hasn’t laid eyes on in a long, long while.
“When I was in Edmonton, when they played together you could see how good they were,” began Blackhawks winger Drake Caggiula. “But when they were apart you could also see how individually talented they were. How they were able to carry a line, and do stuff without each other.”
Here in Chicago they went through this just over a decade ago, when a couple of rookies showed up in the 2007-08 season, arriving to find a moribund franchise whose owner Bill Wirtz had died that September, and would be posthumously booed by the home faithful. The previous season the ‘Hawks had ranked 29th in a 30-team NHL in attendance, failing even to average 13,000 fans inside the cavernous, 20,000-seat United Center. They still had not made their home games available on local TV in Chicago.
Three Stanley Cups later all that has changed, and through it all, Kane and Toews were deployed the way Draisaitl and McDavid are these days: separately until absolutely necessary late in a game — or perhaps on a shift directly after a penalty kill.
Because Toews was the first-line centre, that meant he got the best Chicago wingers not named Kane — Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, etc… Kane flanked a second-line centre like Artem Anisimov, Brad Richards, Michal Handzus or Andrew Shaw. The other spot on that line was a merry-go-round of wingers, all of whom Kane made into better players.
(Ironically it was Artemi Panarin who finally landed there in 2015, but was dealt away because the Hawks wanted to return Toews’ old winger Saad from Columbus to get their captain going.)
It’s different in Edmonton, where both players centre their own lines. Collecting four capable wingers should be easier work for GM Ken Holland, and at this point he’s halfway there with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. McDavid’s current wing situation is still a bit of a revolving door.
But like Kane and Toews, the Oilers’ $21-million pair are done starting games together, even if they may finish a few that way.
“My first year in the league (2016-17) I think Leon put up 80 points (actually 77),” said Caggiula. “He took a huge step forward in that playoff run against Anaheim. He had 16 points in two series. You could see him carry his own line, you could see him putting the team on his back, and you could see him doing it without Connor on his line. That might have been the confidence he needed.
“Last year he scores 50, and this year he comes in with the confidence to say, ‘I’m right there with the best of them in this league.’ He’s a special talent. His passing ability, his strength , his vision, his shot… He’s got everything, and he’s such a fun player to play alongside because he’s able to put the puck on your stick in any situation.
“Honestly, I think that if you can keep them apart it’s probably more beneficial for your team. Then if you need to put them together you know they’ll create something.”
It was one thing being around the Oilers traveling circus when it was just McDavid people wanted to talk about. But as the Blackhawks walked off the ice after ‘picture day’ at the United Center Wednesday, the guy from Edmonton was getting a lot more questions about the German dude than the kid from Newmarket, Ont.
Caggiula, who played on lines with both star Oilers centres before Peter Chiarelli executed one of his legendary head-scratches — sending Caggiula here for expensive farmhand Brandon Manning — is the least surprised.
“You’d watch Leon do something in practice and you’d say to yourself, ‘Hmmm,” Caggiula said. “Then you’d see him do that same thing in a game and you’d go, ‘Ah!’ Then the next day he’s back at practice, doing something else…”
As we often like to say, the players know first.
But it’s the coaches who have to figure out how to defend the two-headed monster that will match up against Chicago’s dreaded pair on Thursday — a contest well worth tuning in for.
“It’s just a different task,” Blackhawks bench boss Jeremy Colliton began. “When they’re on separate lines it’s more of a stress on your team. When they’re together it seems like they can play for two minutes, because they just keep the puck and force you to defend.”
I can recall Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault gnashing his teeth over how to handle Kane and Toews, something that team only figured out once, in 2011. Now, coaches across the NHL lay awake scheming against the Oilers’ young duo, McDavid and the “bleepin’ phenomenal” Draisaitl.
“You’ve definitely got to know when they’re on the ice,” Colliton said. “The puck management is so important, because if you give them a transition opportunity you’re not going to recover, they’ve got so much speed and skill. When you’re out there against one or both, you’ve got to take care of the puck. Force them to come 200 feet with it, and try to get in their way.
“Force them to build speed from zero — they both want to keep their speed as much as possible.”
The good news is, Dallas managed to do just that.
The bad news?
It very rarely happens two games in a row.