Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane was under more pressure to perform at an elite level than any other superstar in the NHL this season. With expectations as high as they could possibly be, he is playing the best hockey of his young career.
At the 2007 NHL Draft, the Blackhawks had the No. 1 overall pick for the first time in franchise history. There were three quality forwards to choose from with the top selection—James van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris and Kane.
Fortunately for Chicago, it took the young winger from Buffalo.
Kane's combination of elite speed, great goal scoring ability, incredible vision and fantastic playmaking skills made him the ideal winger for the Blackhawks to put alongside star center and captain Jonathan Toews, who the team selected third overall in the 2006 draft.
Now 24 years old, Kane is the most electrifying player in the league, and he's in the midst of his best season . Let's look at how Kane has rejoined the NHL's elite after facing adversity on and off the ice over the past two seasons.
Patrick Kane's Rise to Superstardom and His Descent from NHL's Elite
Kane's career got off to an amazing start as he scored 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 82 games to win the 2008 Calder Trophy and help the Blackhawks go from last in the Central Division to third.
The emerging star was even better in 2008-09 with 70 points (25 goals, 45 assists) in 80 games and improved in the defensive aspect of his game. Kane's performance helped the Blackhawks end their five-year playoff drought and advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1995, although Chicago would lose the series 4-1 to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
After a heartbreaking playoff loss, Kane came into the 2009-10 season determined to help the Blackhawks take one step closer to a championship, and he responded with the best year of his career. He posted career highs in goals (30), assists (58), points (88), plus/minus (16) and shots (261).
Kane also dominated the 2010 NHL playoffs with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 22 games to help the Blackhawks end their 49-year championship drought with a Stanley Cup Final series victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Kane scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime of Game 6 (video below), becoming the first Blackhawks player to win a Stanley Cup in overtime since Mush March in 1934.
The young star was on top of the hockey world at such a young age as a champion, a multi-millionaire and arguably the most popular man in the Chicago.
However, the good times would not continue in the 2010-11 season. The Blackhawks struggled just to make the playoffs as the defending champs by barely earning the eighth seed in the West. They were eliminated in the playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks in a thrilling seven-game first-round series after Chicago lost the first three games. Kane had just one goal in the series.
The 2011-12 season was one to forget for the young star. Kane's inconsistent play in 2012 caused many people to believe that he was no longer one of the top 20 players in the league. Kane's 23 goals were his fewest total since his rookie season, and he also set career lows in assists (43) and points (66).
Following another disappointing first-round playoff series loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last season, in which Kane scored zero goals with four assists, he did not conduct himself in a professional manner during the first few weeks of the offseason.
Embarrassing photos and details emerged from a weekend he spent in Wisconsin (via Jack Dickey of Deadspin). Kane was now making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and this was a troubling sign for the Blackhawks because it wasn't the first time their star winger's off-ice behavior had embarrassed the team. In August 2009, Kane was involved in a dispute with a cab driver in his hometown, and was arrested (via ESPN).
The summer of 2012 was not a good one for Kane's image, and as expected, speculation about his future in Chicago was often debated. Fans were wondering if the team should trade Kane, maybe to his hometown of Buffalo for Sabres' star goaltender Ryan Miller.
The Blackhawks knew that trading Kane at such an early stage of his career would have been a mistake, and wisely decided to keep their superstar for 2013.
Kane Goes Overseas, and an Improved Players Returns to the NHL in 2013
When the lockout forced players to go overseas to play competitive hockey in the fall and early winter, Kane went to Switzerland to join Boston Bruins star Tyler Seguin on EHC Biel. The Blackhawks forward scored 23 points in 20 games, and was one of the most exciting players in the Swiss National A League.
Before and after the lockout, Chicago decided to not make any drastic changes to its roster and go into the 2013 season with a team very similar to the year before. Kane was expected to live up to expectations and re-establish himself as one of the 10 best players in the league who were nearly unstoppable when on top of his game.
With 24 points in 20 games, Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring this season, and has been the model of consistency by scoring a point in 16 of his team's 20 games this season. He's also been nearly impossible to defend on the road with a point in each game that Chicago has played away from the United Center (18 points in 10 games).
He's on pace to score 58 points in this 48-game shortened season, which is quite impressive considering the fact that he tallied just 66 points in 82 games last season.
The Blackhawks' record-setting 19-game streak without losing in regulation to start the season would not be happening if Kane failed to play at an elite level thus far.
"I just tried to work hard over the summer, I had a little time with the lockout spent overseas in Switzerland, maybe that helped me a little bit," Kane told the NHL Network on Feb. 22.
"Back to right wing that helps, and your playing with a good team that always helps too. It's fun playing with these guys, it's fun winning games and I think that's a big tribute to my success."
Is Patrick Kane the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy?
One of the more impressive aspects of Kane's game this season is his strength. He isn't tall at 5'11", but has gotten a lot stronger over the last few years, which has made him much tougher to knock off the puck. After this season, no one will call him a "soft" player.
His combination of strength and skill is a very unique one. No one has better hands than Kane. One quick fake and he can blow by even the best defenseman with his unreal quickness and speed.
Kane shows no signs of slowing down, and no one will be surprised if he leads the NHL in scoring at the conclusion of the regular season. Kane's confidence is probably as high as it's ever been, so there's no reason to think he will fail to be productive offensively on a consistent basis in 2013.
A Bright Future Ahead
Young kids, especially ones who are star athletes with lots of money and fame, usually do things they will later regret. Kane came into the NHL at 18 years old and was expected to, along with Toews, bring the Blackhawks back to their glory days after decades of playoff failures. That's an insane amount of pressure on one teenager.
Dealing with expectations, successes and failures are all part of the growing up process, and credit Kane for realizing this was the most important season of his career.
There are three things you can never criticize Kane, and they are having enough passion, heart and the will to win. When you combine those three characteristics with elite skill, the results can be extraordinary, as we have seen with his performance this season.
As Kane continues to mature on and off the ice, he's going to become a more confident and productive player for the Blackhawks.
"[Kane is] playing extremely well, we're very happy with the way he's started the season with us, his demeanor, his approach, his consistency and his game both sides of the puck," said Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville after a victory in Phoenix on February 7 (via Blackhawks.com).
"He's a threat and he wants the puck and he wants to score. So he's doing everything we want him to do and we're very pleased with his contribution."
As arguably the best American-born player in the NHL right now, there is a huge opportunity for Kane to become one of the United States' most popular sports stars over the next two years. When the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi arrive, Kane will be the best player on a Team USA squad that is looking to improve upon its silver medal performance three years ago in Vancouver.
Is Kane the best American-born player in the NHL?
Very few NHL players have the amount of offensive talent that Kane does. If he wants to become the world's best offensive player, he has the ability to make it happen. If the 2013 season has proved anything, it's that Kane wants to be even better than he was in 2010, and lead the Blackhawks to multiple championships in the near future.
Will he become the first American to ever win the Hart Trophy in 2013? If the season ended today, Kane would be the most deserving player. Sorry, Sidney Crosby.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.