|Patrick Kane is playing his best hockey and looking like the superstar that he should be. (US Presswire)|
Like any first overall draft pick, Patrick Kane's entry to the NHL was one of optimism and lofty expectations. When the Chicago Blackhawks called his name in June 2007, there was the belief that Kane could become the great American superstar that the league could one day ferociously market to a national audience as one of the elites in the game.
In the years since, the Buffalo native has collected a Calder Trophy, an Olympic silver medal, has one 30-goal season under his belt and famously scored the game-winning goal that ended Chicago's 49-year Stanley Cup drought.
With all of those accomplishments on top of his get-you-out-of-your-seat skills, kid-next-door looks and youthful charisma, Patrick Kane should be the American superstar that the NHL has craved since the days of Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick, but he's not. For the past two years, it looked like he might never become it, either.
Watch Kane dance through defenders or deliver one of his postgame interviews in front of the United Center crowd, and it's easy to see he has star quality. But the brightness of his star has been dimmed by the young forward's own hand.
A series of public embarrassments -- including shirtless photos from a night out in Vancouver and the incident with punching a cabbie in Buffalo -- caused concern. Then, just this offseason, there was the Cinco de Mayo in Madison, Wis., that launched a thousand photoshops and caused Blackhawks management to publicly voice its concern for the young forward.
On top of all that, Kane's numbers declined in back-to-back seasons. It wasn't a straight regression, but it was enough to cause concern that maybe things off the ice were beginning to take their toll.
Kane was creating his own unsavory narrative. As a result, it has been hard to convert Kane's star quality into bona fide stardom.
This season, however, Kane is flipping the narrative.
While spending the lockout in Switzerland playing for EHC Biel and living with his mother, the 24-year-old spent most of his time staying in and playing hockey. Kane scored 13 goals and posted 23 points in 20 games while abroad.
Upon his return to the NHL, Kane looks stronger, faster and just plain better.
Over the past few years, Kane has been unquestionably one of the most skilled players in the NHL. His stickhandling is off the charts, his vision and distribution skills are elite and he has shown that he knows how to score. However, Kane this season has seemingly found another gear.
The right wing has points in every game but one in 2013 and ranks second in the league with 20 points in 13 games to date. He has scored seven goals over his past seven games and is fourth in the NHL with nine on the season. It's early yet, but Kane is showing he belongs in the discussion with the league's elite.
Part of Kane's success is getting shifted back to his natural position on the right wing. He always seemed like an odd fit as a second-line center, a position Kane had to occupy last season more because there wasn't really any other option for Chicago.
The positional change isn't the only thing that's different.
Much has been made of Kane's refocusing on hockey. The youngster vowed to change after the incident in Madison, but those claims were met with hearty skepticism. Perhaps thanks in part to his time in Switzerland enjoying mom's home cooking and limiting outings to practice and games, Kane is letting his actions prove the skeptics wrong.
For a player as young as he is, the distractions will always be there. There is a chance this hot start will go south and the speculation will undoubtedly go to what's happening off the ice. For right now, Kane is setting a new ceiling for expectations. In doing so, he is rehabilitating his image and, in all likelihood, his marketability.
If Kane is able to sustain this type of production and stay out of trouble, the league is going to get that American superstar it can sell to the wider national audience.
There really hasn't been anything similar to the early and mid-1990s, when Americans were among the biggest stars in the league. Some have felt that the majority of the NHL being made up of foreign players is one of the reasons the game has struggled to gain and maintain a larger foothold in the American sports landscape. Even though there are more Americans in the league today than ever before, the relative lack of star power is still a sticking point.
The NHL has always wanted those easily identifiable domestic faces to supplement the international appeal of Sidney Crosby and, perhaps now to a lesser extent, Alex Ovechkin. Players like Zach Parise and Ryan Miller have at times looked to fill that role, but haven't sufficiently. Kane certainly could be that guy, assuming his off-ice persona doesn't come back to bite him.
While it's far too early to hand out awards, Kane is on a pace that would put him in contention to become the first American-born Hart Trophy winner. That has been the white whale for players from the U.S., despite their increasing prevalence in the NHL.
Putting Kane in the Hart race 13 games into a 48-game season is probably overly optimistic, but there's reason to believe he can make that push.
"I think there are still things I can do better, personally, to be honest with you," Kane told the Chicago Sun-Times. "That's the exciting part for me -- and for the team."
When a player has the type of performance Kane has had and thinks there's more to give, it's almost unfathomable. The way Kane is playing, however, makes it seem believable. He looks like the player he was on track to become after his first three seasons in the league.
If Kane's heavily photographed trip to Madison was rock bottom, it came at a time that allows the young star to turn his legacy and image around. He's taking those steps right now and for him, the Blackhawks and the NHL, it could pay off in the best possible way.
After all, America really loves a redemption story.