James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Blackhawks experiment with breaking up Panarin and Kane

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In the modern NHL, it’s rare for two linemates to spend virtually every shift together.

The Chicago Blackhawks presented an even more unusual situation, as a rookie (Artemi Panarin) managed to generate such instant chemistry with an established star (Patrick Kane) that they were almost attached at the hip.

That made for a second line that very much felt a lot like a top combo, with Panarin winning the Calder Trophy while Kane mopped up the Art Ross and Hart.

Some might say “Why mess with a good thing?” but as CSN Chicago notes, the Blackhawks are at least fiddling around with other arrangements during the preseason.

“Over the course of a season you know they’ll be together at times. But that’s something that’s going to get sorted out,” Joel Quenneville said. “The chemistry among the two of them is special. They’ll always (have) some shifts together. Whether (or not) they will be permanently together is something we’ll evaluate.”

It barely feels like hyperbole to say that they were permanently together last season.

Panarin saw 1,180:12 minutes of ice time last season, and of that time, Kane was on the ice for 1,004:06 with him. Artem Anisimov often accompanied them, and to really bring home the point, the next most common forward partner for Panarin was Jonathan Toews at 141:06.

To get an idea of how unusual that stability is, consider how often Toews skated with common linemate Marian Hossa by comparison (a little more than half of Toews’ shifts were with No. 81).

The draw of moving Panarin and Kane around is obvious, at least on paper.

They’re both wildly creative players who can make magic happen for others, so what if they can spread the wealth? Besides, the Blackhawks may want to determine how much of Panarin’s success comes from lining up with Kane before handing him a huge contract extension.

Coach Q must weigh the potential benefits of moving them around versus the possibility that they should just be glad to find a magical combination.

It’s not the worst problem to have by any stretch, yet it’s something to watch for a Blackhawks team that has some offensive questions to answer … at least relatively speaking.

Eller embraces third-line center role with Capitals

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Sometimes taking that next step isn’t about making a huge splash. Instead, a smaller tweak can make for a winning formula.

Don’t be surprised, then, if acquiring Lars Eller ends up giving the Washington Capitals that extra nudge.

Naturally, it helps when a supporting cast player is comfortable with his role, and Eller indeed seems comfortable in his expected role as a third-line center

“I know who I am, I know what I’m here for, what I was brought in to do,” Eller told NHL.com. “Sometimes in Montreal, I was moved around quite a bit, maybe. I didn’t maybe at times find one place to stick in, so I’m just really, really excited to get started here.”

A quick look at Behind the Net’s numbers backs up Eller’s observations regarding his Montreal Canadiens days.

In 2013-14, he began 43.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. He carried quite a burden in 2014-15, starting just 37.1 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone. Last season? Eller’s o-zone starts jumped to 50.7 percent.

While it’s true that Eller scored at a consistent rate during that span of time, the Capitals are probably most concerned about his all-around play, so drawing a regular assignment could be helpful.

Lining up with quality players wouldn’t hurt matters, either. So far, Eller’s been skating with Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, the sort of wingers some teams would happily trot out as second-liners.

As much as Eller values the idea of a stable role, he also realizes that his linemates may change quite a bit. The bottom line is that he feels “really energized” in Washington, and that could pay some nice dividends by a team that figures to sit atop many experts’ lists heading into 2016-17.

Taylor Hall: Not quite a Jersey boy yet

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The New Jersey Devils could do worse than to have a camera crew follow Taylor Hall around as he adjusts to his new habitat.

At the moment, we’ll have to settle for this fun piece from NHL.com, which spotlights Hall’s experiences as he gets to know a place of toll booths, widespread brunch and diners.

The money quote, at least to make a good impression with locals, has to be: “If I were to have a family here someday, it’d be a really good place to be.”

That said, the stuff about being flustered at a toll booth is where the fun happens. Hall also apparently needs some time to make a dent in the hearts and minds of Devils fans. His anecdote about a moment with pal and teammate Adam Henrique really took the cake.

“He had just told me how low-key everything is here and, on our way back to his place, a lady stopped us and asked Adam for a picture and then she asked me to be the photographer,” Hall said. “I was certainly happy to take the picture and, honestly, a little bit happy to be anonymous too. We had a pretty good chuckle after that. That had never happened to me before.”

Good stuff.

The talented left winger lined up with Henrique and Beau Bennett in a Devils exhibition game tonight. The Devils must hope that his friend helps Hall adjust as much on the ice as Henrique is passing along tips off the ice.

Looks like he’s already making some friends, as this mundanely goofy photo can attest:

*thumbs up*

Maybe this won’t be Hitchcock’s last season after all

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Imagine this: Ken Hitchcock coaching against the St. Louis Blues in 2017-18.

Such a scenario seems a bit more plausible following Friday’s report from TSN’s Darren Dreger: apparently Hitchcock isn’t totally certain that he’ll retire from NHL head coaching after 2016-17.

With a Stanley Cup on his resume and years of success in different locales, Hitchcock doesn’t necessarily have that much to “prove.” Instead, it kind of sounds like he dreads the boredom that may result in walking off into the sunset.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find if I don’t have a stake in the game I get bored really quickly,” Hitchcock said. “I need to have a real stake in the game and that’s what I love about coaching … I’ve got a stake in the game and what I do matters every day and is important every day. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.”

Strange things can happen in lame duck coaching scenarios, yet at the moment, the Blues’ plan appears to be for Mike Yeo to go from assistant to head coach after 2016-17 wraps up.

If Hitchcock still wants to be behind an NHL bench, it’s possible that he might need to take a job somewhere else to do so. (Otherwise, it would be a bum deal for Yeo.)

Hitchcock emphasized to Dreger that he’s still leaning toward this being his last year as a head coach, but he also spoke of a few regrets, including being unable to take the Columbus Blue Jackets from a playoff appearance to legitimate contention.

Hey, if he wanted one more challenge, there are plenty left. There’s an adventure waiting in Las Vegas for someone, for one thing …

Senators’ Ryan, Ceci already got in Boucher’s doghouse

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Bobby Ryan and Cody Ceci were late to an Ottawa Senators team meeting, giving new head coach Guy Boucher a convenient opportunity to assert himself before the regular season.

Boucher did so on Saturday, sitting the two players during the first period of Saturday’s 3-2 overtime exhibition loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s an event that was noted by media on hand, including TSN’s Brent Wallace.

“That’s our rules,” Boucher explained, according to Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch. (It doesn’t sound like they were late by much, either.)

One can imagine Boucher and his scar being quite the intimidating sight for late-arriving players such as Ryan and Ceci. What better time than the preseason to send messages, too? He gets to flex his managerial muscles without running the risk of meaningful on-ice consequences.

Boucher faces an interesting challenge – and opportunity – in trying to whip this group into shape.

While the roster is flawed, there’s interesting talent, and one could foresee a situation where the former Lightning coach would get more out of the very likes of Ryan and Ceci.

It’s dangerous to read too much into a situation like this, yet it’s still an interesting note. Especially if Boucher’s relationship sours with either player.

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In other news from that exhibition, Torrey Mitchell left the game with an upper-body injury.