By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Patrick Kane expected a growth spurt this season. He has gone through growing pains instead – off-season wrist surgery that hurt his training, a move to center that forced him to adjust, the worst statistics of his five-year NHL career, even the suggestion that he might be tradable.
It has been frustrating. It has also been normal. And it might be paying off now.
The up-and-down Chicago Blackhawks are on the upswing again. Along with the addition of defenseman Johnny Oduya and the play of goaltender Ray Emery, Kane has been a main reason why the ’Hawks have won three in a row and given themselves some breathing room in the Western Conference playoff race entering Tuesday night's game against the St. Louis Blues.
Kane has moved to center from right wing the past three games, as he did for a long stretch earlier this season. With captain Jonathan Toews recovering from an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion, Kane has filled the void in the middle on the top line and helped fill it in the room.
"I think he's elevated his game to a level that makes us a better team," said ’Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. "I just think he's welcomed this opportunity to show some leadership for our team here."
Kane is only 23.
It's easy to forget that sometimes because he has accomplished so much already – a Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, an Olympic silver medal with Team USA, a Stanley Cup championship with the Blackhawks, five straight seasons of at least 20 goals and 70 points.
It's easy to assume that things will always go well, and it's easy to expect that he should be all grown up when compared to Toews, Captain Serious, who is 23 going on 33.
But Kane is not Captain Serious. "That's not really my thing," he said, smiling. And he doesn't have to be like Toews. He can grow his own way.
"I think I've become a bigger leader as time has gone on in my five years here, a little bit more each year," Kane said. "Whether Johnny's out or not, I'm just going to be my same self, be who I am and joke around and have fun."
Kane sat with one skate on Sunday night after scoring the winner in a key 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings, giving him three goals and four points in his past four games – a big deal when he has only 16 goals and 53 points, putting him on pace for 19 goals and 64 points. Both would be career lows.
Asked where he wanted to improve, he gave a quick answer – "everywhere" – tinged with regret and maybe the perspective that comes with maturity.
"I thought this year I was going to come in and be a big-time player, be an elite player in the league and try to be up there with the best players in the league," Kane said. "I caught a tough break in the off-season with the wrist surgery, and then I came back and they wanted me to play center, a new position, different thing. But you know, if I can play center, wing, whatever the team asks me for, I think it's going to help the team more than anything."
The 2009-10 season was a dream. Kane won the silver medal in Vancouver. He finished the regular season with career highs in goals (30), assists (58) and points (88). He added 10 goals and 28 points in 22 playoff games, and he scored that weird winner in overtime in Philadelphia as the Blackhawks beat the Flyers for the Cup.
But then came the party-boy pictures on the Internet and the salary-cap purge that claimed half the Cup team. Kane remained a point-a-game player in 2010-11, with 73 in 73 in the regular season, but the Hawks backed into the playoffs on the last day of the season and their rally from a 3-0 deficit against the Vancouver Canucks fell short in OT of Game 7 in the first round.
Kane committed himself to off-season training. He told people he would try to take the next step in 2011-12. But while working out, he aggravated a wrist injury he had suffered late in the regular season. He had surgery to repair a scaphoid fracture. He could do only so much afterward.
He returned in plenty of time for the regular season. The Blackhawks, thin down the middle, moved him to center from right wing. It seemed like an experiment at first. It lasted a long time.
"When the move was made that I was going to center, I think a lot of people probably thought that it would last five, 10 games. Who knows?" Kane said. "For it to last 30, 35, I think it was a success. It kind of gave us that option down the road for things like right now."
Kane said he moved back to right wing when "maybe it got a little bit stale." But it can get a little bit stale at right wing, too.
He is used to making plays. He is used to putting up points. He is used to winning. When those things aren't happening, he does what a lot of star wingers do. He cheats. When he cheats, he stops skating. When he stops skating, he doesn't use his best assets. There is a snowball effect.
The Blackhawks need Kane at center now because Toews is out, but Kane might need to be at center now because it forces him to skate and stay more involved in the game. "You get the puck a little bit more with speed," Kane said. And you get it coming up the middle, where the 5-foot-11, 181-pounder has space to show off his skills.
"Even as a winger, he's got the puck all night," said ’Hawks GM Stan Bowman. "As a centerman, he's got good speed. He can make plays. He's more of a passer than a scorer, anyway. So even as a winger, he's more of a setup man. It's a natural, really, to put him in the middle."
Kane flew around the ice last Wednesday night in a 5-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, firing five shots on net, picking up a goal and assist. He was dominant Friday night in a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators even though he didn't record a point.
He wasn't as good Sunday. The Wings' Darren Helm turned him inside out while setting up a Detroit goal. After he made a nifty move to evade one Wing in the middle of the ice, he was knocked on his butt by rookie defenseman Brendan Smith. He was caught lollygagging on at least one backcheck, and when the Blackhawks were protecting a one-goal lead in the final moments, Quenneville used rookie Marcus Kruger between Sharp and Marian Hossa.
But Kane also showed his quick hands, taking a pass from Patrick Sharp down low, stickhandling past goaltender Joey MacDonald and slipping a backhand shot into the net. He also made a couple defensive plays in the third period, stripping the puck off one Wings player deep in the Chicago end.
He needs to work on his faceoffs, but … well, growing pains, right? While Toews is out, the Hawks have a top-line center and Kane is skating. When Toews returns, they have choices. They can return Kane to the wing and hope he carries his good habits with him. Or they can keep him at center for a one-two punch down the middle. Or they can mix and match on the fly, now that Kane has done both.
"You're never going to replace a guy like Tazer," Kane said. "I know that. The whole team knows that. For us, we just try to play a different game now. I guess we've got to be a little bit more tight defensively and try not to give up as much. But three [wins] in a row. Things are going good right now. Just try to keep it going. We know when we get Johnny back, we'll be even better."
And maybe Kane will be even better, too.