That Patrick Kane is off to a great start shouldn't be a surprise. He's Patrick Kane, after all, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner and former No. 1 draft pick. But let's tell the truth: Everyone is at least a little surprised Kane has been so great despite the elephant in the room that was a previously lingering accusation of rape.
Now that the case has been dismissed by the Erie County district attorney for lack of evidence, the elephant in the Chicago dressing room is getting smaller by the day.
Putting aside the psychology of how Kane has been able to emerge as the NHL's current scoring leader—with 32 points and a current 16-game point streak—what are the hockey reasons for this, the best start of his career? Question is: Is this just a hot start, or has Kane turned the corner to being a more consistent player for the long term?
Scotty Bowman, 82 years young and still a senior adviser of hockey operations with the Chicago Blackhawks, and his GM son, Stan, have a couple of theories on Kane's great start and why it can continue.
Kane is figuring out that good defense can lead to more offense
"The biggest thing with Kane is, he was always more of an offensive guy than anything, but now he's starting to steal pucks from guys, like [Wayne] Gretzky did after his first few years," Scotty Bowman said. "When a guy like that steals the puck, they don't have many guys to beat.
"He's playing more of a 200-foot game now. The best eventually figure that out. [Steve] Yzerman used to score 65 goals a year and his teams wouldn't make the playoffs. When he figured out that he had to be good in the defensive end too, that's when he started to win Stanley Cups. Same with [Joe] Sakic. He was just a poacher early in his career, but then he got better at the defensive end, and his offensive numbers didn't suffer. They even got better."
Actually, with seven takeaways, Kane is averaging fewer per game than last season (36), per SportingCharts.com. But that is still a very small sample size, and takeaway statistics can be deceiving. The more you play with the puck in the first place, the fewer opportunities there are to take it away. And Kane's relative Corsi For Percentage, per Hockey-Reference.com, at even strength of 11.9 is higher than last season's 10.5 and the 7.3 the year before that.
"And when people think defense, they think of a guy being right on the puck and checking them. In this case, we're talking about his play away from the puck," Stan Bowman said. "Some of the things he's doing aren't going to show up in the numbers. The first goal of anyone when he's on the ice is to get him the puck, because when he has it he almost always does something good with it, and he's finding ways to get the puck more often now."
Scotty Bowman said Kane is playing more effectively while deeper in his own zone, not just hanging around up top waiting for the D-men to give him the puck, and his plus-minus (plus-11) is projecting better than the plus-10 he was all of last season.
"When Yvan Cournoyer was a rookie with Montreal [1964-65], he had just come off a phenomenal couple of junior seasons. But [coach] Toe Blake pulled him aside and said, 'You're going to play only on the power play until you figure it out," Bowman said. "You can only backcheck or forecheck if you want, but you have to do at least one of the two. He eventually did both, and he had a great career."
Panarin and Anisimov are emerging as perfect linemates
In young Russians Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov, Kane seems to have found the perfect two players to complement his own skills.
Anisimov plays a more conventional north-south game at center, while Kane and Panarin love to make criss-cross passes through the seams to each other from the wings. The line has emerged as one of the most dangerous in the league, as it has 13 goals together, according to LeftWingLock.com, a total behind just four other lines'.
"Teams have looked at [Jonathan] Toews and [Marian] Hossa and said, 'We've got to stop those guys,' and teams are doing a better job of that this year, putting their top checking lines on them," Scotty Bowman said. "That's freed up the Kane line more. It'll be interesting to see if teams switch that up soon and focus more on [Kane's] line."
Said Stan: "Those two guys, I think Kane felt comfortable with them right away, and he knows their tendencies real well already and they know his. It's been our most consistent line."
This is Kane's ninth NHL season, yet he turned just 27 last week. His current numbers suggest he is only now hitting his prime. How much better can he get? Is his best still to come?
That's an interesting question in today's NHL. We're only now seeing the wave of 18-year-olds from the mid-2000s hit their late 20s, so it will be interesting to see how players such as Kane, Toews and Sidney Crosby fare statistically.
Some wonder if such players' "prime years" will become more like 24 or 25, and the declining years statistically start at a correspondingly younger age. With so many top players now ranging from 18-24, will 28 or 29 become too old to consistently compete at their level?
History shows that most players' best scoring seasons usually come within their first nine years. Gretzky, for instance, had all four of his 200-point seasons within his first eight seasons in Edmonton, and he entered the NHL at age 18. Hall of Famer Joe Sakic entered the league at 19 and scored 100 or more points six times in his 20-year career, with four of them coming in his first eight years.
In Kane's case, at least, the numbers are going up as he gets older. And, as Scotty Bowman notes, Kane is smarter and more mature as a player. Stan believes "he's been trending up, really since last year. People forget, but he was leading the league in scoring last year [tied with two other players] when he got hurt. I think he's only going to get better, because he's in elite shape, probably better than he was five years ago, and he's a smarter player."
|Patrick Kane's point production average first eight seasons to now|
That he's done it this year, with all the distraction of the previous allegations against him, has defied the odds even more. With a more established line than years past (the team went through several second-line centers but seems to have found a more permanent solution in Anisimov) and the threat of the Toews line still splitting the attention of the top checking lines, it seems more than reasonable to expect that we'll see better production from Kane than we have during his already-impressive career. Especially, too, now that the distractions of the legal case have ended.
But as Kane told the Chicago Tribune's Chris Hine last week, the ice was always an oasis from his troubles.
It doesn't mean it doesn't weigh on you, whether it's articles or reports, whatever it may be. Hockey has been my little getaway from everything. It's almost like after school or something, when you don't want to worry about your homework, you get to go play with your friends. That's kind of what the feeling has been for me.
The lingering accusations were also a distraction for Kane's teammates, but they stood by him.
As Toews told the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Lazerus:
You can always sit there and worry about the worst-case scenario, but I don’t think that is really going to change anything. So worrying and dwelling on something that’s out of your control can just kind of can make things spiral out of control and make things worse in your own mind. I think Kaner’s done an unbelievable job of dealing with all of the things that have been said about him, and focusing on the things he’s had to do. I think as players an an organization we did the same thing, we just took it one day at a time and had confidence it would resolve itself, and we could go back to focusing on hockey.
Kane's life away from the rink has seen its share of unsavory headlines. But on the ice, there is no doubt: Good things keep happening.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report