The Chicago Blackhawks were looking to shake things up back on Nov. 25 when they traded third-year center Nick Schmaltz to the Arizona Coyotes for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. Schmaltz had fallen flat after a solid 52-point season in 2017-18 while Strome and Perlini hadn’t lived up to their first-round billing in Arizona. Changes of scenery made sense for everybody.
Still, there was considerable risk involved, especially after the unpopular decision to fire Joel Quenneville. Schmaltz was by far the most proven NHL player at that stage and actually picked up his play offensively in Arizona before a knee injury ended his season just before the new year. He could still rather easily be the best player exchanged in that deal.
That being said, the Blackhawks feel like they’ve scored a huge win already. The sample size is still relatively small, but Dylan Strome made immediate contributions and is a big part of why Chicago is on the fringes of postseason contention with a dozen games to play thanks to 43 points in 46 games rooted in his incredible instincts on-ice and great chemistry with Alex DeBrincat.
Strome’s emergence alone justifies the Schmaltz trade that everyone was so skeptical of back in November. However, the emergence of Brendan Perlini in the last two weeks could wind up being just as important.
Prior to arriving in Chicago, Perlini was actually the more accomplished NHL player of the two acquisitions from Arizona. He scored 31 goals in his first two seasons and made significant contributions on the Coyotes power play.
In Chicago, Perlini got off to a slow start. He put up just four points in his first 30 games and was a regular healthy scratch. At some point, as Mark Lazerus of The Athletic reported earlier this month, Perlini had an epiphany that he needed to play more care-free hockey.
The result: He’s on a blistering two-week tear where he’s dumped in seven goals in six games, including a two-goal game against the Kings on March 2 to start his hot streak and a hat trick in a gigantic win over the Coyotes on March 11. He’s playing aggressively, firing six shots on net against the Sabres (scoring a goal in the process) on March 7 and putting eight shots on net in the aforementioned breakout against Arizona.
That’s earned him more ice time, as he’s topped 15 minutes in his last two games. He hadn’t bested 15 minutes of ice time since Dec. 1 when he played 16:06 against the Predators in his third game with the Blackhawks.
Looking at the underlying possession numbers that tell us a little bit more about whether Perlini has really flipped a switch or if he’s benefiting from extreme luck, things are even more encouraging. Perlini has been a poor possession player throughout his career, but he’s had a positive Corsi for percentage in five of his last six games and a positive Fenwick for percentage in four of his last six (all at even strength).
In those games where he was super aggressive against Buffalo and Arizona, Perlini’s line dictated tempo all night to create six high-danger scoring chances for in each game without allowing any defensively. Perlini created five of those chances himself in each those two games and those are the opportunities that often define who wins and loses the game.
Long-term, a goal-per-game pace obviously isn’t sustainable. However, the keys to success are pretty blatant. Perlini has to fly around the ice and force opponents to deal with his size/speed combo in dangerous areas and get shots on net often.
That’s the perfect sort of temperament for what could be a strong third-line scorer on the wing, which fits a huge need for the Blackhawks. Chicago gets regular scoring contributions from their top two lines, but third-line scoring has always been a key to their success.
Guys like Kris Versteeg, Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Dustin Byfuglien (before becoming an All-Star defenseman in Winnipeg) have all been key scorers from the third line during Blackhawks Stanley Cup pursuits. As Perlini finds his rhythm, it’s easy seeing him fill that sort of role with 20-goal potential.
Perlini is 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, which puts him in the Byfuglien/Bickell category. Only Perlini skates much better than Bickell ever did and is probably even a little quicker than Byfuglien, although he’s not as physical as either.
Ultimately, Perlini has the potential to fill a valuable role on the third line and could even provide power-play contributions as needed. He’s still got a lot to prove to earn those roles on a more permanent basis, but what you’re seeing right now is reason for excitement if you’re a Blackhawks fan.
Stan Bowman may have turned a fringy second or third-line center into a second-line center and a third-line wing. Those are exactly the sort of personnel wins that help you dig out of a hole like the one the Blackhawks have been in the last 17 months.