It’s official. Patrick Kane will be back in the Blackhawks’ lineup Wednesday night for the first game of Chicago’s first-round tilt with the Nashville Predators.
Kane, who has been out since February with a broken clavicle, is coming back seven weeks after the injury was suffered. Initially, when he went down, the thought was Kane wouldn’t see action until the Western Conference final, were the Blackhawks to make it. The news that he’ll play in the first game of Chicago’s playoff run comes as somewhat of a shock and it begs the question: how effective will Kane really be?
There’s the trope about star players that some, even at 50 percent health, are better than most players in the league. The same could be said for Kane, surely, but one’s left to wonder whether or not that’s true when the injury Kane suffered is one that could hinder his greatest asset, his ability to handle the puck.
We’ve all seen by now the incredible video of him bobbing and weaving through a mess of pucks with such finesse that it’s dizzying, but what happens when his ability to so fluidly move the puck is hampered?
Well, in a series against a team like Nashville, that’s concerning. The Predators have a reputation for being one of the most defensively sound teams in the league. They cultivated that status by playing a strangling style of defensive hockey under former coach Barry Trotz and many of the basic tenets that garnered them that reputation have remained under coach Peter Laviolette.
Entering the offensive zone by carrying the puck against Nashville’s defense is far from easy. Though the Blackhawks boast some offensive talent that makes other teams envious, far and away the most gifted forward is Kane. If the Predators can force Kane to dump the puck in because his stick handling is suffering and their forecheck is suffocating, they’ve effectively taken the game away from Kane. The player Kane is when he’s controlling the play versus the one he is when he’s chasing it are world’s apart.
Remember Bryan Bickell's game-tying goal against the Boston Bruins in the final minutes of game six of the 2012-13 Stanley Cup final? That play was started by Kane carrying the puck through four Bruins defenders. That’s the kind skill that will be necessary to break through the neutral zone on Nashville, and if Kane can’t provide that due to soreness or stiffness from the injury, it won’t help Chicago’s cause.
That’s not say Kane being in the lineup hurts Chicago in any way, however. Far from it. But for Kane to be effective, he’ll need to carry the puck. As a puck carrier, he will be targeted. Does he shy away from contact? Do the first few hits hurt him? Because, if they do, we might not see Kane again in game two or his minutes throughout the series will be severely limited.
Now, if Kane plays limited minutes – say on the power play or during key situations – that drastically changes his effectiveness as well. Kane has stepped up in plenty of big moments, but he’s also saved the Blackhawks from ever getting to those moments, too. He’s unlikely to play near the 20 minutes he was averaging pre-injury, so the Predators already catch a break in that Kane will be a top-line star playing third- or fourth-line minutes.
There’s also the concern – and this is long-term thinking rather than a win-now mentality – that Kane suffers another, similar injury during this series against Nashville and he’s lost for future games. What if Chicago wins the series but loses Kane in game six? Sure, maybe Kane put them over the top to win the series, but now, as the competition arguably gets stronger, they’ll be without him.
And what about seasons that follow? Could a subsequent injury create shoulder problems that pop up on a year-to-year basis? Shoulder surgery can sideline a player for lengthy periods of time, as Kane just found out, so aggravating the injury at the cost of losing future games is a troubling prospect.
But Kane knows what’s at stake. He knows that the Blackhawks current window – with a roster that includes Bickell, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya and restricted free agents such as Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger – is closing. Kane has twice led Chicago to Stanley Cup glory only to see the roster stripped the following season due to the salary cap crunch.
Do you recall Kane’s comments leading into 2009-10? He told NHL.com’s Brian Compton the season was Stanley Cup or bust. Of course, the Blackhawks won the Cup that year, but Kane was right. After the Cup, the team lost key contributors Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Kris Versteeg, John Madden and Antti Niemi. A similar cache of players was lost following the 2012-13 Cup victory.
That’s likely why Kane is back. He knows the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks are facing yet another Stanley Cup-or-bust scenario. Next season, he and captain Jonathan Toews are set to get huge pay raises, which will come at the expense of at least a few teammates leaving the club.
Kane wants to win. And he knows he can help Chicago do that. His effectiveness will be questioned until he shows otherwise and there’s no doubt the entire Windy City is hoping he’s ready to go. If Kane is the player he was before the injury, Chicago will benefit greatly. But if his injury causes him problems, Nashville could be the team moving on.