CHICAGO | Patrick Kane reveled in being a Sports Illustrated cover boy this week.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Kane said. “Not only for yourself personally, but where this team is at. It seems we’ve been on (the cover) quite a bit lately. I think it’s four times in the past year. So it’s a good thing for hockey, and obviously being a Blackhawk helps you get those opportunities.”
Now Kane has to turn artwork into action -- to truly play like a cover boy season-long to help fulfill SI’s prediction of back-to-back Hawks Stanley Cups.
The glamorous winger will start the season Tuesday night teamed with center Jonathan Toews on the Hawks’ first line. In spite of the fact the Hawks have the core of their championship roster returning with some intriguing home-grown kids supplementing that group, Kane and Toews ought to find an even higher level of their play to increase the chances of a rare Stanley Cup repeat.
The dynamic duo, synonymous with the revival of the moribund Hawks from 2007 forward, are entering both their physical and emotional prime in their mid-20s. They know they cannot afford to plateau in their performance at this point in their careers.
Another level seems hard to achieve with both Kane and Toews each having won Conn Smythe trophies as playoffs MVPs during the Stanley Cup runs. Kane also scored the 2010 title-winning goal in overtime in Game 6 in Philadelphia. It’s more of a skill set and consistency.
“I thought I was pretty consistent last year,” Kane said. “It’s something you want to keep improving on. Your overall game from everything – from scoring to stickhandling to playing defense, making good players, not turning the puck over, to having the puck a lot. There’s always a little room for improvement.”
Coach Joel Quenneville believes Kane and Toews have the slack to move upward in quality.
“They’re both young guys and they still think they’re getting better,” he said. “They’re both guys who love to be the best they can be on a daily basis. They both like winning. It’s a situation where I don’t think they’re content where they are with their development.
“I think there’s some room for growth. I’ve watched ‘Kaner’ skate during practice. He looks quicker, he looks stronger. Jonny’s at that same place. I don’t want to say there’s a certain age where you stop getting better. But I think these guys still got a ways to go where they’re still going to be improving.”
Kane and Toews turning into absolute beasts on ice would seem to an edge needed in a league where no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
The Hawks surely have a franchise goalie in Corey Crawford, who came into his own throughout the playoffs – and might have deserved the Conn Smythe more than Kane.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are back again to lead a deep group of blueliners, with young Nick Leddy looking to break into the Top Four. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa will provide firepower on the second line. Andrew Shaw, often bruised and battered but proud, is back again as a “sandpaper” guy, a bantam-rooster pugilist centering the third line.
Standing tall among newcomers from AHL Rockford is 6-foot-6 winger Jimmy Hayes, looked to replace the promoted 6-foot-4 Bryan Bickell on the third line.
“I just think I need to continue to develop in a big man’s-type game,” Hayes said. “I watched Bryan Bickell play during the playoffs. I realized that’s how you play as a big guy. I need to have that rub off on my game.”
Nothing will be as big for the Hawks, though, as Kane and Toews way out in front for both the Hawks and the NHL itself.