By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — Special.
There may have been other words starting with “S” that were used to describe Kane early on his career, but these days, “special” is the one used most often.
“Kaner, he’s a special player,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. “We use that term a lot with him.”
Everyone around the Blackhawks organization appreciates Kane, the 2007 No. 1 overall pick who already has four overtime playoff goals — the last of which came Tuesday night to send Chicago to the Western Conference Final — despite still only being 25 years old.
But it would be hard to argue that anyone appreciates Kane more than his head coach.
While opposing coaches are tasked with figuring out ways to match up against Chicago’s lines, it’s Quenneville who gets to use Kane to toy with his opposing peers.
“The concerns the other teams have to worry about with matchups with (Kane) and then Johnny (Toews) and his line is what makes us a tough opponent,” Quenneville said. “I think as a coach you have a lot of options in using Kaner in the course of games with a couple lines and all the sudden it really gives the opponent a lot to worry about. It’s a great situation to be in.”
The term is “matchup nightmare”.
Fans will sometimes get frustrated seeing Kane bounce between lines during games. “Michal Handzus slows him down!,” they’ll say. Or, “Why doesn’t Kane play with Toews more?!?”
Well, in Quenneville’s mind, splitting them up and moving Kane around within a game is what makes the Blackhawks so tough to beat. Kane’s only weakness — if you want to call it that — is that he’s only 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, so the coach makes an effort to keep his star winger away from certain opposing players and sometimes uses specific teammates to protect him. Thus, like Kane’s game, unpredictability is the best weapon.
“As far as him seeing plays, making plays, patience with the puck, play recognition — not too many players in the league are close to his league,” Quenneville said. “He has a very unique ability of slowing the play down and assessing his options and utilizing the wingers and the (defensemen) involved in the attack.”
Kane is known for his speed, but Quenneville is right: His patience with the puck is what makes him so dangerous. Kane has a fascinating ability to lull you to sleep before he dances right by you.
“When he’s on the ice for 45 seconds, he’s touching the puck for probably 30,” teammate Bryan Bickell said. “The puck finds him. He makes plays out of nothing.”
Believe it or not, playing on the same line as Kane can be challenging. He’s such a unique talent that it takes some unselfishness to have success playing with him.
“He likes to play with the puck, so get to the net more and create opportunities like that because he’s a great player, he’s going to get the puck to you,” forward Brandon Saad said. “So letting him do his thing and working hard, that’s the key to playing with him.”
It sounds simple, but the challenging part is not changing your own game too much while you’re on the ice with Kane.
“You try not to change too much because when you get away from what you do well as a player, you tend to lose a little bit of your effectiveness, but playing with Kaner, you obviously want to get him the puck,” Ben Smith said.
Get him the puck and give him some space. Actually, those were Smith’s exact words.
“You want him to do his thing,” Smith said. “Seems like he’s got that puck on a string most of the time. We want to try to get him the puck in good areas, get him ice and mainly go to the net trying to find ways to find rebounds or just create space for him anyway you can.”
Of course, a big part of Kane’s game is what he does without the puck, too. Spend a whole shift solely watching Kane — not the puck — and you’ll appreciate everything he does when he’s on the ice.
“We all have rhyme or reason for how we play without the puck, and I think one of the strengths of our team is offensively we have a lot of guys that can see and make plays,” Quenneville said. “Their anticipation is what makes them special. So we encourage these guys to have the freedom to go ahead and do what they want to do.”
And that makes life easier for the coach. Sure, there are certain players who need to be reeled in a little bit, but Kane is definitely not one of them.
“We’ll never try to slow him down,” Quenneville said.
Only Kane can slow himself down. Right before he blows by you.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears and Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.