By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) For Patrick Kane, being so tightly linked to Jonathan Toews for his entire Blackhawks career has blessed him with historic success and cursed him with inevitable comparison.
Their juxtaposition as rookies in 2007 has meant that each has continued to be viewed and defined largely in relation to the other, with roles cast early on that defined Kane as the flashy highlight producer and Toews as the do-everything stalwart.
Here was a Sports Illustrated story from December of that year that laid out the accepted descriptions of the two then 19-year-olds as they arrived in the NHL. It included this much-repeated quote from an unnamed scout: “Kane might win you a scoring title. But Toews will win you a Stanley Cup.”
And this from an anonymous Western Conference GM: “The other guy will score more, but Toews will do more. He’s bigger, and you’ll have some hard, physical series. Toews might hold up better in the grind.”
And so it has gone since.
Kane hasn’t made it easy on himself, certainly, with his cartoonish, drunken gallivanting the stuff of local Chicago legend, Buffalo police reports and Internet photographic record. As Toews grew quickly into exactly the kind of relentless, stoic performer and team leader long envisioned, Kane seemed intent on putting on eye-popping individual displays both on the ice and in the clubs.
But something subtle and important has happened, with the wacky “Kaner” an increasingly distant memory. If he’s still enjoying the occasional cocktail, he’s doing it more at home. When he is out in public, he’s not giving reason for amateur photojournalists to fumble for their phones.
Sources close to the team described a coordinated effort to steer Kane toward professional maturity, taking on particular urgency immediately after his too-well-documented spree in Madison two years ago. There was outreach both internally and externally, including every level of the Blackhawks organization and even Kane’s family. He was too talented and too important to let off-ice misbehavior threaten a potential dynasty, and every effort would be made to get through to him before confronting the possibility of a trade.
Whatever it has been seems to be working. Some point to last year’s lockout, and Kane’s 20-game sojourn in Switzerland with his mother in tow. Others remind, correctly, that after all of this – seven years in the league, 493 points, three All-Star games, the Calder and Conn Smythe trophies and multiple series-clinching playoff goals, including one to win one of his two championships – Patrick Kane is only 25 years old.
For context, the Bears’ Alshon Jeffery is only three months younger. The Cubs’ Starlin Castro is a mere four months younger, and the Bulls’ Derrick Rose is six weeks older.
Think about that. Patrick Kane is still just a kid, and in a sport that can allow great players to be effective even into their 40s. So get used to this, if he and Toews are lucky enough to remain relatively healthy.
Those projections from 2007 were right, but not entirely. Kane hasn’t won a scoring title, and he’s come close just once, finishing fifth last season. But he has contributed with more than just timely, spectacular goals and is still growing into a more complete player capable of influencing games in other ways.
His supernatural hands, vision and speed are critical to Chicago’s puck-possession style, and when an athlete continues to play well in the most important moments on the biggest stages, we can appreciate his unique ability to retain his skill without being overwhelmed.
Statistical analysts in sports define “clutch” thusly: a player simply able to keep doing what he has proved he can do, true to his established performance level regardless of situation. That has been Kane, who now joins Martin Gelinas as one of two players in NHL history with three playoff-series-winning overtime goals.
As we look back, Jonathan Toews has indeed powered the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups and is now challenging for a third, with “the other guy” so much more than that.