The Chicago Blackhawks are a serious contender to win their third Stanley Cup in five years. While even that would not get them listed on the NHL’s official dynasty list, it would be an indelible mark in the history books, and particularly salient in the salary cap era.
When evaluating great teams over time, it is fun to see which Hall of Famers are their bellwethers. The best teams typically have some players that are not just great, but historically great. And the present Blackhawks’ core is well publicized and justifiably praised for its awesomeness.
Jonathan Toews is the captain and leader, Patrick Kane is the electrifying crunch-time scorer, Patrick Sharp is the sniper, and so on. But while Toews has the reputation of being the best forward on the team — a two-way center who plays a 200-foot game and can shoot, pass, and hit — that perception may need to change. Because Kane has been playing out of his mind in 2013.
The evolution of Patrick Kane has made for good theater since this enormously famous talent is the poster child for the good and the bad in young, gifted athletes. Yet, while his maturation and growth into an adult is a popular narrative, what should not be lost is that he has become a serious candidate for being the best NHL forward not named Sidney Crosby.
First, let’s start with his numbers. Kane is fifth in the NHL in points with 16 goals and 14 assists. He is tied for the lead in game-winning goals and is shooting the puck a little over three times per game – right around his average in his best years. His shooting percentage is 18.4, which is higher than his career average, so a slight regression in goal pace over the next 54 games is expected. But Kane’s PDO is under 100, as the save percentage of Chicago’s goaltenders when Kane is on the ice is less than 91. Therefore, a gravitation towards the mean is expected over the next 54 games with better puck luck.
Kane’s Corsi and Fenwick for percentages are both a ridiculous 61 percent, and the team’s shots for percentage when Kane is on the ice relative to the percentage when he is not on the ice is nearly double that of Bryan Bickell, who sits at number two. What this means is that, when Kane is on the ice, the puck is driving north and the Blackhawks are firing a lot more rubber at opposing goalies than they are allowing on their own.
This makes sense because, despite being a winger, Kane is the quarterback of whichever line he is placed on. He is one of the elite players at gaining the zone on an entry and employing his prolific stickhandling to buy himself and his linemates time. After vetting the situation, he utilizes his vision to find the passing lane that opens up a scoring chance, or he uses his creativity and elusiveness to get a goal opportunity for himself.
It is stunning theater, but less tangible to measure than when Toews does his work in the center circle because faceoffs are individual battles, and Toews’ faceoff wins in the defensive zone lead to a breakout or, in the offensive zone, provide a possible scoring opportunity. Also, centers like Toews are paramount to winning. After all, a hockey axiom is that you win consistently when you have depth up the middle. And winning faceoffs helps you keep possession; centers are assigned to keep the puck in control and distribute it to their wingers and defensemen.
Toews does that very well, and the Blackhawks are first in the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick percentage. But Kane is sort of like LeBron in that he is almost positionless. He wields the control that a pivot does after the faceoff drop, and that is why Chicago was able to win the Cup last year with Michal Handzus as their titular second-line center and have been dominant with Brandon Pirri in that role this year.
Nominally, Kane is listed as a right wing, but he slices and weaves all over the ice – pushing the pace and dashing to open space. Kane assumes some of the duties usually reserved for the center. Hockey is not the linear, straight-line game that it was in the 1950’s; players are now expected to play on-a-string defensive coverage in their own zone and spread the ice in the neutral zone and offensive zone, avoid congestion and pass to the open area.
Kane’s play reflects this unambiguously. He is always making the next pass, the next cut, moving with the rhythm of the Chicago defense. When Kane has puck possession, he glides across the ice looking for cutting teammates to whom he will make an impeccable seam pass, or he will find a shooting lane to exploit.
Kane’s stickhandling and balance are so good that he kind of just evades opponents. It is similar to how Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson uses his impeccable footwork to be able to sidestep the pressure of the pass rush.
For Kane, opponents are an annoyance but hardly an impediment. His ability on and off the puck is a continuous catalyst at generating open ice for his teammates. He creates space and finds space, capitalizing on any fissure in the defensive blockade. Kane also is one of the very top players in the NHL at catching passes. He very seldom fumbles with the puck; it is seamlessly moved into position where he needs it at the moment: a quick deke, a feathery saucer pass, an acute angle for a penetrating shot.
Furthermore, Kane is always ready to make the next move; he always seems to be one-to-two steps ahead of his opponents. Partly, this is because he catches everything so effortlessly. Even if the puck gets placed at his feet or behind him, Kane can corral it, consistently able to make that little extra step or move that frees himself and his teammates.
Something Kane does better than his counterparts in the league is his offensive zone entries. He enters the zone fast, but he does not go at a speed where he leaves his teammates too dramatically behind. And even if he is ahead, he can buy time for them to catch up and find gaps in the defensive coverage. Rick Nash and Evgeni Malkin are very good at making offensive zone entries, but often will fly up the ice so fast that they will need to make a move that either leads to an individual scoring chance or they will try to buy some time by circling the net or stopping abruptly and shifting direction. Kane does this, but his movement is much more methodical and smooth, and it allows for the offensive support to follow him. If Kane loses the puck, the forecheck and offensive pressure is good enough that often Chicago can get the puck back.
Kane’s play has caught up with his talent. Kane’s greatness is that he sees the windows that are available. He knows where he needs to get the puck when he is stickhandling so that he can avoid the defensive back pressure. He knows where he needs to put the puck when he unwinds a shot-pass on a backdoor cut or a backside dish to the trigger man who has emerged after flashing to a spot in the slot. The Buffalo native knows where his slapshot needs to be to generate a rebound or how high he needs to throw his wrists up on a wrist shot so that the puck rises above the butterfly goalie.
His accuracy is precise and calculating. It is breathtaking to watch night in and night out how surgically he makes his progressions as he flings the puck around the offensive zone to the other four Blackhawks. Gaining separation from your opponent is not a prerequisite in Kane’s universe.
Kane’s biggest weakness used to be that his defense was lukewarm, but he has worked hard to improve this and it shows. Now he forces turnovers and keeps an active stick. Teammate Marian Hossa is one of the best at procuring takeaways and springing himself or his teammates for the transition, and Kane has learned from him. Although Kane is not the defensive player that Jonathan Toews is – behindthenet.ca still assesses Toews as facing tougher competition and more difficult zone starts — Kane has improved his defense markedly. He ebbs in the defensive zone when his team needs him to help below the hash marks and stay aware of the defenseman he is assigned to cover.
Moreover, Toews is not the offensive player Kane is. Part of Kane’s improved maturation is that his conditioning is much improved. Kane is also tough as nails. Toews has a propensity to go into the gritty areas, and is properly lauded for it, but Kane similarly plays undaunted, and will make the tough play to free a forward to a better scoring chance or open up a goal opportunity for himself. Kane’s puck control, vision, creativity, and explosiveness are better than Toews’. He is a more dynamic player overall because his playmaking skills are nonpareil.
The most frustrating players are the talents who have all the gifts but do not take advantage of them. That is why Martin Havlat is such an infuriating player and Zach Parise is so beloved. Havlat has wasted his chance as an NHLer and Parise has made the most of every modicum of talent he has.
Despite some public foibles and some maturity issues, Kane still has been building a Hall of Fame resume all along. He has two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe already, but there was a belief that he was not always fully engaged in being the best hockey player possible 365 days of the year. He did not find his fifth gear without some growing pains, but he has now found it. And it is freaking beautiful to watch.
That Kane is finally fully realizing his limitless potential is a good thing. And the point is that it is happening right now, not that it should have happened earlier. His ceiling is being illuminated and that spells trouble for the rest of the West.
Determining whether Kane is better than Toews is irrelevant. Both are great and contribute tremendously to the Blackhawks’ success. IH is not declaring that Kane is unequivocally the second best forward behind Crosby, just that the perception that Kane is outside of the top five forwards in the NHL should change, because he is in that echelon.
Since the hockey fellowship is happy giving Alexander Ovechkin the Hart Trophy repeatedly, and awarded Corey Perry the honor in 2011, Kane’s emergence into the VIP section looks less displaced. Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares or Ovechkin — the forward who is best after Crosby is a hotly contested category, and there may be no right answer. Nevertheless, this much is indisputable: Kane is now in the conversation.