Kane paying big dividends with Blackhawks

Some players might gripe after ending a six-game road trip with a 2-0 loss in Vancouver on November 25 and being held off the scoresheet for the fourth straight time. But not Patrick Kane.

“I think we had a good trip, and you’ve got to be happy with the way we played,” the 19-year-old Chicago rookie winger told HockeyAdventure.com. “A lot of our young guys proved themselves, and it was nice getting points in four out of six games. At the same time, we know we’ve got to get better.”

The flashy Buffalo native leads all first-year NHLers with 22 points in 23 games, a pace that mirrors what former Blackhawks star and current head coach Denis Savard accomplished in his first season (75 points in 76 games in 1980-81). Savard isn’t concerned about Kane’s recent scoring slump on the top line.

“He’s playing well,” said Savard. “He’s had plenty of chances. It’s tough to score in this league, and he knows that. But with his work habits and the way he’s played, I have no complaints. He’s a young man. He’s going to get plenty of points in his career.”

That’s the prognosis you’d expect for the top overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Kane has lit up goalies at every level, from the 102 points he earned with the US National Development Team Program in 2005-06 to the 145 points he tallied with the London Knights en route to the OHL scoring title and Rookie of the Year honors last season.

But realistically, if the NHL hadn’t stuck with its post-lockout crackdown on obstruction and rule changes to open up the game, Kane might still be on the major junior circuit or in the AHL, working on increasing his strength. At 5-10 and 163 pounds, he’s physically the polar opposite of another #1 overall pick who also wore the jersey number 88, Eric Lindros (chosen by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991 before being traded to Philadelphia the following year).

Unlike the just-retired Lindros, however, Kane isn’t being asked to carry a franchise single-handedly. That would be a tall order in Chicago, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 or won a Stanley Cup since 1961. The Hawks are fortunate to have one of the NHL’s most dynamic young forward duos in Kane and Jonathan Toews, who rank 1-2 in most rookie scoring categories so far. Back in January, the two were rivals at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden, where Toews and his Canadian teammates ousted Kane’s Team USA in a dramatic semi-final shootout.

“We’ve talked about it,” admitted Kane. “We joke about it because he was 3-for-3 and I was 0-for-2 in the shootout. He’s got a little bit on me right now, but I can’t get back at him right now because we’re on the same team! It’s nice going through our rookie season together, since that way there’s not so much pressure on one guy. We can relate to each other on and off the ice.”

But surely Kane would still like to finish ahead of the University of North Dakota product (drafted third overall in 2006) in the scoring race at the end of the year?

“If he gets two or three points, then obviously I might want to go out and do the same,” said Kane with a grin. “It’s a friendly competition where it makes both of us better.”

Chicago’s recent drafting is paying off, as the Hawks boast two other first-round picks in their lineup: Tuomo Ruutu (ninth overall in 2001) and Brent Seabrook (14th overall in 2003).

Kane, the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October, is also keeping tabs on another Blackhawks prospect who’s still toiling with the OHL’s Knights. Akim Aliu was taken 56th overall in 2007. Although the physical winger gained notoriety a couple of years ago for an altercation during practice with Steve Downie in Windsor, Kane believes Aliu has an NHL upside.

“He’s a good player,” Kane said. “He’s just got to put all of his skills together. He’s got the tools to be here. He’s one of my good buddies, too, so I talk to him a lot and see how he’s doing back in London.”

Meanwhile, there are plenty of new experiences for Kane to soak up in Chicago. He’s come so far since idolizing Pat Lafontaine as a kid and then having Pat Verbeek as his coach with the Detroit Honeybaked midget AAA team. He can still hardly believe he scored on Dominik Hasek in a shootout to give Chicago a 4-3 win over Detroit in his home debut on October 6.

As a big basketball fan, he gets a kick out of playing home games at the United Center, where Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA titles from 1996 to 1998.

“Of course, you don’t think too much about basketball when you’re out on the ice. But there’s a lot of history in that building, and hopefully we can create some history of our own and win some championships too.”

The Bulls are off to a woeful 2-10 start in 2007-08. What to do? Kane offers a simple tongue-in-cheek solution: “Get Kobe!”

The Hawks will solve some problems of their own when key forwards like 2007 scoring leader Martin Havlat and 2002 Stanley Cup winner Jason Williams return to the lineup. But will Chicago be able to hang tight in the playoff race or fade as in past seasons? That’ll be the litmus test for this promising group, which could experience the same kind of growing pains as Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005-06.

“The West is pretty close right now, and it’s still early in the season,” said Kane. “We’ll see how things go. But when we get all our guys back healthy, we should have a pretty solid team.”

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